Bill to improve processing of FOIA requests advancing
Senate legislation -- sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and passed by voice vote just before the chamber left for recess -- includes provisions to allow anyone who provides information to the public to seek waivers from fees for their requests. Such a provision would expand the fee waiver request from professional news organizations to freelance journalists and bloggers.
The bill also tightens the deadlines for agencies to respond to requests within 20 days, but gives agency headquarters, for example, 10 days to pass on information to the agency branch office receiving an FOIA request before the 20-day clock starts ticking. Records held by outside contractors hired by an agency would also be covered by FOIA.
The legislation would create an FOIA hotline service and tracking system to follow requests. In addition, an ombudsman agency, an Office of Government Information Services Office within the National Archives, would be established to resolve information request disputes as an alternative to court action.
The measure has widespread support, as evidenced by the pairing of Cornyn and Leahy. In a column this month for National Review, Cornyn wrote: "Far too often when citizens seek records from our government, they are met with long delays, denials and difficulty. Federal agencies can routinely and repeatedly deny requests for information with near impunity. Making the situation worse, requesters have few alternatives to lawsuits to appeal an agency's decision."
After the Senate passed the legislation, Leahy hailed it as "a fitting tribute to our bipartisan partnership and to openness, transparency and accountability in our government."
The House passed its own bill March 14, on a 308-117 vote. The House and Senate bills are similar but not identical. The House bill states that, in determining a representative of the news media, "an agency may not deny that status solely on the basis of the absence of institutional associations of the requester, but shall consider the prior publication history of the requester."
The Senate bill states, in part, "the term 'a representative of the news media' means any person or entity that gathers information of potential interest to a segment of the public, uses its editorial skills to turn the raw materials into a distinct work, and distributes that work to an audience."
Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.Org., a key government transparency proponent, said, "I'm sure it will get through Congress," adding, "I hope the president signs it."