Senate panel passes FOIA request bill

The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved legislation that would give the public better access to government records and prod federal agencies into responding more quickly to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The bill (S. 394), the Open Government Act, which was introduced by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and cleared the committee on a voice vote, is designed primarily to reduce the current massive backlog of unprocessed FOIA cases. As of the end of 2005, the number of requests languishing in the hoppers of the 22 government departments and agencies was nearly 150,000, up 20 percent from the previous year.

Among other things, the bill calls for stricter enforcement of the current 20-day deadline for providing some kind of response to a FOIA, and the creation of a FOIA ombudsman to mediate disputes between the government and the public on information requests.

The bill would also let the public track the status of FOIA requests online and via a telephone hotline, give the courts more authority to overturn information requests and make it easier for FOIA plaintiffs to collect attorneys' fees.

The measure would also update FOIA by granting bloggers the same reduced processing fees now enjoyed by mainstream media journalists.

In addition, the measure would require more congressional oversight of a Homeland Security Department program that allows corporations to provide the agency with information on vulnerable infrastructure without being subject to FOIA and liability lawsuits.

Action on the bill has been stalled for a year due to lack of support from the White House, Democratic backers of the measure has charged. Although President Bush directed agencies to reduce their FOIA backlogs in an executive order late last year, he has withheld a specific endorsement of the Cornyn-Leahy legislation.

A companion bill has been introduced in the House by Rep. Todd Platts, R-Pa., and is currently pending in the Government Reform Committee.

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