Bipartisan Bill Aims to Beef Up FOIA Compliance

By Joseph Marks

March 12, 2013

The Republican and Democrat sitting atop Congress’ top watchdog panel unveiled joint proposed legislation Tuesday that would mandate a single online portal for all Freedom of Information Act requests across government.

The 2013 FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act would direct officials to look closely at FOIA Online, a 5-month old joint FOIA Portal for the Commerce Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and a handful of other agencies. It would leave the door open for the governmentwide FOIA system to be built elsewhere, though, according to a press release from sponsors Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

There have been rumors that the Justice Department opposed FOIA Online being adopted more widely, a charge Justice has denied.

Issa and Cummings are the chairman and ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Their proposed legislation would also grant the Office of Government Information Services, which was established as a sort of FOIA ombudsman in 2007, to report directly to Congress rather than passing its reports and recommendations through the White House’s Office of Management and Budget first.

OMB delayed OGIS’ first report for several months until it was finally released following pressure from senators.

Issa’s and Cummings’ proposed legislation would also Beef up FOIA oversight, establish a council of agency chief FOIA officers and put the power of legislation behind a 2009 memorandum from Attorney General Eric Holder that required agencies to review FOIA requests with a “presumption of openness.”

The legislation would require agencies to post online any document that is requested more than three times through FOIA.

“Requests through the Freedom of Information Act remain the principal vehicle through which the American people can access information generated by their government,” Issa said in a statement. “The draft bill is designed to strengthen transparency by ensuring that legislative and executive action to improve FOIA over the past two decades is fully implemented by federal agencies.”

Cummings added: “This bill strengthens FOIA, our most important open government law, and makes clear that the government should operate with a presumption of openness and not one of secrecy.”

By Joseph Marks

March 12, 2013