Lawmakers seek to draw attention to FOIA

The annual campaign by open government activists and journalists to raise awareness about the importance of transparency, known as Sunshine Week, will continue with congressional action this year. During the celebration from March 12 to March 16, senators will reintroduce legislation to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act.

The 2005 Open The Government Act, co-sponsored by now-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, touched on electronic openness and helping new media journalists but concentrated mostly on organizational changes within federal agency FOIA offices. The committee is still drafting the final language for the 2007 bill, but it will be very similar to the original bill, according to committee spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler.

Provisions in the bill would give agencies "strong incentives to act on FOIA requests in a timely fashion," Schmaler said. "This bill will be more than just pro-openness, pro-accountability and pro-accessibility. It will also be pro-Internet."

The new bill would ensure that Internet-based journalists and people who write Web logs are given the same reduced FOIA fees as other members of the press. In addition, it would mandate the establishment of FOIA hotline services, provided either over the telephone or the Internet, where requesters could track the status of their information requests.

Some of the 2005 proposals included: creating a new FOIA ombudsman to evaluate agency compliance with the act, improving personnel policies for FOIA offices; and imposing harsher consequences for missing statutory deadlines.

That bill did not address compliance with previous FOIA amendments mandating that agency FOIA Web sites post frequently requested documents in online "reading rooms" easily accessible to the public. Nor did it discuss the use of technology and the Internet internally for processing, redacting and responding to FOIA requests.

Leahy authored the amendments as part of a 1996 law, known as e-FOIA, aimed at speeding the processing of FOIA requests and providing electronic versions of documents to the public. According to Senate Judiciary Committee staff, e-FOIA could be one of the issues raised during a March 14 committee hearing on open government.

Government watchdog groups say many agencies have not yet implemented the e-FOIA rules. Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, said the House and Senate are both aware that the e-FOIA amendments are "being barely implemented."

"[Agencies] certainly don't comply with putting up the documents they anticipate would be requested by more than three requestors," she said. "For the most, what is in the FOIA reading rooms is really minimal."

She and other open government proponents say FOIA should be a last resort for seeking records regarding the government's activities.

Steven Clift, the board chairman of E-Democracy.org, said the government hopefully is moving toward "information dissemination as the default."

"This bill is a fine step forward except for the general premise that we must request information versus having it automatically put forward. ... That will change," he said. "It may take decades."

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