Talks on FOIA revamp reach an impasse

House and Senate conference negotiations on legislation calling for sweeping changes to the Freedom of Information Act have hit a sticking point, increasing chances the widely supported effort to improve government transparency will not be successful this year, staffers familiar with discussions said.

Backers of the Senate bill, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, have urged House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., to push through their measure, which includes compromise language to address objections that Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., raised on behalf of the Justice Department. But Waxman is resisting that step in part due to pay/go budget concerns, a Judiciary Committee aide said. The sides failed to work out differences at Friday's meeting.

"We are very disappointed with how things went in that meeting," the Judiciary Committee aide said. "We are disappointed the Senate bill is not able to move forward in the House. ... Now it's starting to look like something might not happen. We're butting up against the end of the year."

Failure to quickly reconcile and pass the measures would disappoint backers who say the legislation, the first significant FOIA overhaul in a decade, includes needed fixes to problems that contribute to an increasing lack of responsiveness to FOIA requests by federal agencies. Both bills passed with large veto-proof majorities. The measures would both increase penalties on agencies that fail to respond to FOIA requests within 20 days. Both create an ombudsman to mediate FOIA disputes and an office within the National Archives focused on FOIA issues.

But the measures differ over how to help requesters recover attorney fees if they succeed in suing to force release of information. Agencies now pay litigants' fees only after losing in court. Critics say some agencies exploit that provision by releasing material just before an impending decision in an effort to drain the resources of information requesters. Both bills address that concern by allowing recovery of fees if the agency changes its stance after litigation starts.

But while the House requires the payments come from appropriated funds, the Senate bill does not say where the money would originate. That may cause a violation of pay/go rules if the House takes up the Senate bill. The bills also differ in defining who qualifies as media eligible for FOIA fee waivers, with the House using a more inclusive definition to determine which nonprofits and bloggers could get waivers.

The Judiciary Committee aide acknowledged shortcomings in the Leahy-Cornyn bill, but argued that only the compromise Senate bill would ensure a quick passage. "There are still problems we need to solve," the aide said. "But it's a good first step." Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, an umbrella group of organizations advocating greater government transparency, said the "clock is running" for passage of the bill.

"The ball in the House's court at the moment," said McDermott. "I think the Senate side is waiting for a proposal from the House on the pay/go issue in particular."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.