President Obama signed the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 in the Oval Office on Thursday.

President Obama signed the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 in the Oval Office on Thursday. AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Obama Signs FOIA Reform and Announces New Transparency Steps

Lawmakers from both parties welcome reforms some doubted would ever happen.

Just in time for the July 4th 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act, President Obama on Thursday signed the long-sought bipartisan FOIA reform bill, reassuring some who doubted his commitment and using the occasion to announce an array of new initiatives aimed at opening more government records to the public more efficiently.

The 2016 Freedom of Information Act codifies the “presumption of openness” that Obama embraced during his first year in office and curbs what its drafters call an overuse of exemptions by agencies withholding requested documents. The new law also creates a single FOIA request portal through the Office of Management and Budget and enhances the ability of the Office of Government Information Services—run out of the National Archives and Records Administration—to help mediate FOIA disputes. 

The White House took advantage of the occasion not only to reassure lawmakers—among them Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who expressed concerns that Obama would balk—but to release a lengthy fact sheet on openness lined with new steps the administration is taking.

Its celebratory tone comes despite frequent criticism from transparency advocates who issue mixed report cards and say Obama’s agencies have not been as open as he promised they would be.

One of the chief sponsors, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the new law embodies “the most significant reforms of FOIA since its enactment in 1966,” noting that the presumption of openness was first articulated by President Clinton but disavowed by President George W. Bush.

“What makes FOIA special is that it empowers anyone to request and obtain records from the federal government, unless those records fall under nine narrow exemptions,” he added. “This is a hallmark of FOIA cherished by journalists, watchdogs, and interested citizens alike.”

Issa, who went out of his way to thank his sometime-nemesis but partner in FOIA reform Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., called the new law “a major milestone that enshrines into law the people’s right to know what their government is actually doing.”

“We’ve seen countless examples of how easy it is for government to cover up waste, fraud, abuse, or anything politically embarrassing through years of delays, redactions and special exemptions,” Issa said in a statement. “The bill, which will now become law, will help ensure these types of injustices are a way of the past.”

Daniel Schuman, policy director for the transparency group Demand Progress, also welcomed the new law, praising its “technological savvy” and calling it “a win for open and accountable government.” But he also expressed “regret that elements of the Obama administration prevented the bill from passing last Congress and worked to weaken its bite, undermining the administration's claim to be the ‘most transparent administration in history.’ ”

The White House statement boasted that over the past seven and a half years, the administration had processed more than 4.6 million requests under FOIA, and released 180,000 datasets to the public, an “unparalleled” number, according to the administration. The fact sheet also reviewed the administration’s efforts to digitize the FOIA process, improve customer service, work with the public and improve agency reporting on FOIA.

Among the new transparency steps the administration announced are:

  • Tasking the newly established Chief FOIA Officers Council to identify and address the biggest difficulties that exist in administering FOIA across government, with its first meeting set for July 22;
  • Appointing new members for the FOIA Advisory Committee, which will meet at the National Archives on July 21;
  • Adopting the principle that a “release to one is a release to all” and a presumption for agencies to proactively post documents online;
  • Beginning consolidation of the new centralized FOIA request portal, based on work by the Environmental Protection Agency and the administration’s own Open Government National Action Plan;
  • Tasking OMB and the Justice Department with issuing new guidance on FOIA’s long-term operations in government; and
  • Making the effective execution of FOIA one of the administration's cross-agency priority goals.