Bill to Prevent 'Power-Hungry' Feds from Hiding Information Heads to Obama

President Obama signs an executive order on transparency his first day on the job. President Obama signs an executive order on transparency his first day on the job. Ron Edmonds/AP file photo

The House on Monday passed Freedom of Information Act reforms long sought by a bipartisan alliance of lawmakers and transparency nonprofits. The bill writes into law the Obama administration’s commitment to a “presumption of openness.”

S. 337, passed during FOIA’s 50th anniversary year, would curb “overuse of exemptions to withhold information from the public,” in the words of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a longtime advocate, and enhance the ability of the Office of Government Information Services—run out of the National Archives and Records Administration—to help mediate FOIA disputes. 

Incorporating parts of a House companion bill sponsored by Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the bill would also require the Office of Management and Budget to create a single portal through which individuals can submit a FOIA request to any agency. It would place a 25-year sunset on the government’s ability to withhold certain documents that demonstrate how the government reaches decisions. And it would require agencies to update their FOIA regulations and disclose documents proactively that are likely to be of public interest.

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“The legislation passed today makes it clear that the American people have a fundamental right to know what their government is doing,” Issa said in a statement. “The Freedom of Information Act was supposed to make government more open, but in recent years, it has become ripe with abuse as administrators have made a habit of slow-walking, delaying, or outright denying requests for information that should have been made public to begin with. The bill effectively cripples the ability of federal bureaucrats and power-hungry government officials to keep information from the American people.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said, “A more transparent government leads to a more accountable government. But I’ve seen time and again the lengths the executive branch will go to to keep its activities out of public view, where it can’t be scrutinized,” he said. “The president’s administration has failed miserably to make good on his pledge to have the most transparent administration in our nation’s history. With only a few months left in office, he now has an opportunity to take an important step toward his stated goal by signing this important open government bill into law.”

Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, which led a coalition of nonprofits backing the bill, said, “Greater access to government information stands out as one of the few clearly bipartisan issues in Congress today….This reform bill is the result of tremendous efforts on the part of our colleagues in the FOIA community, and, especially, our allies in Congress in charge of conducting FOIA oversight.”

Elizabeth Hempowicz, policy counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, said, “The Freedom of Information Act is meant to be an effective and efficient tool for granting the public access to government information. However, it has become increasingly difficult for citizens to obtain information through the FOIA process. Through these much-needed reforms, we believe the law will be closer to being implemented as Congress originally intended.”

The perceived unity, however, has not prevented a skirmish over FOIA provisions in the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. The Pentagon this spring requested an expanded exemption from FOIA requests for “information on military tactics, techniques and procedures.”

The coalition of transparency groups has joined with Sens. Grassley and Leahy in an effort to remove that language from the Senate bill, arguing that such classified information is already shielded.

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