After resolving differences with the Senate, the House Wednesday passed a bill overhauling the Freedom of Information Act, sending the measure to President Bush.
The legislation, which passed on a voice vote, attempts to reverse a decline in federal agencies' response time to FOIA requests. Provisions include barring agencies from collecting search fees if they fail to respond to a request in 20 days and creating a FOIA office and ombudsman within the National Archives.
The bill contains compromises aimed at addressing Justice Department concerns. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who co-sponsored the bill in the Senate with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he expects Bush to sign it quickly.
"The American people can have a new law honoring the public's right to know under the tree this holiday season," Leahy said in a floor speech Tuesday. The Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent on Friday.
But the White House declined to say if the president will sign the bill, raising the chance it will become law without Bush's signature while Congress remains technically in recess over the holiday break.
The House and Senate this year each easily passed separate versions of the bill. But the legislation stalled in conference. While Senate Judiciary aides emphasized the need for a compromise bill that could pass quickly, House negotiators pushed for slightly stronger version of the bill.
House negotiators also said the Senate version of a provision requiring agencies to pay the legal fees of requesters who win lawsuits under FOIA violated pay-as-you-go budget rules. Earlier this month, Leahy and Cornyn reintroduced the bill with pay/go language specifying that attorney fees be paid from appropriated funds.
When House negotiators balked at this revision, the bill was further tweaked. An aide to House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said one key change was removal of a section that changed the criteria for when agencies can assert information is exempt from FOIA.
Another important change was the addition of an amendment backed by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. It requires agencies that redact documents provided under FOIA to state at the point of redaction the exemption from the law that justifies the redaction.
Waxman lamented on the House floor that the bill fails to restore a Clinton administration standard that agencies should release information unless they determine doing so would do harm.
Government transparency advocates wanted that provision to reverse a post-September 11 order by former Attorney General John Ashcroft instructing agencies to lean toward withholding information if they are uncertain about releasing it.
Waxman called for efforts to undo the Ashcroft order and said, "This bill is a good first step." The first revision to FOIA in a decade, the bill mandates that agencies use tracking systems for FOIA requests and creates a hotline service for addressing FOIA problems. It clarifies that government contractors are subject to FOIA, a position some agencies have disputed.
Passage of the bill drew applause from good government groups. "It's not a perfect bill, but it makes important strides forward, so we're very happy," said Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, an umbrella group of organizations that advocate government transparency.