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 G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Federal IT Applications: Assessing Government's Core Drivers

    In order to better understand the current state of external and internal-facing agency workplace applications, Government Business Council (GBC) and Riverbed undertook an in-depth research study of federal employees. Overall, survey findings indicate that federal IT applications still face a gamut of challenges with regard to quality, reliability, and performance management.

    Download
  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

    Download
  • Toward A More Innovative Government

    This research study aims to understand how state and local leaders regard their agency’s innovation efforts and what they are doing to overcome the challenges they face in successfully implementing these efforts.

    Download
  • From Volume to Value: UK’s NHS Digital Provides U.S. Healthcare Agencies A Roadmap For Value-Based Payment Models

    The U.S. healthcare industry is rapidly moving away from traditional fee-for-service models and towards value-based purchasing that reimburses physicians for quality of care in place of frequency of care.

    Download
  • GBC Flash Poll: Is Your Agency Safe?

    Federal leaders weigh in on the state of information security

    Download

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