Administration defends proposed FOIA change

Senators say effort to move an oversight office from the National Archives to the Justice Department is an attempt to undo recent legislation.

Bush administration officials on Tuesday defended an effort to move a Freedom of Information Act oversight office from the National Archives to the Justice Department, saying Justice already does tasks given to the new office by a recently enacted law.

"Most of the proposed functions for the new Office of Government Information Services are duplicative of activities already being performed by DOJ," an Office of Management and Budget spokesman told CongressDaily in an e-mail.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, say language in President Bush's fiscal 2009 budget proposal that moves the oversight office to the Justice Department is an attempt to undo part of a recent Open Government Act, which alters federal FOIA procedures.

Signed by Bush on Dec. 31, the new law says an Information Services Office within the National Archives will do such jobs as reviewing agencies' compliance with FOIA and housing a FOIA ombudsman.

But in separate statements, OMB and Justice spokesmen noted Justice has long set federal policy on FOIA matters and already mediates FOIA disputes with requesters.

The OMB spokesman said the National Archives lacks experience with FOIA issues "and mandating such a role could detract from [the agency's] core mission" of storing federal records.

In a letter sent Tuesday to OMB Director Nussle, however, Leahy and Cornyn, who sponsored the FOIA bill in the Senate, said the new law put the new office in the National Archives to keep it independent of Justice, which already represents agencies sued by FOIA requesters.

"We did not want the same agency to both mediate FOIA disputes and defend them in court," the senators wrote. Moving the office would violate the legislative stated intent of the recent FOIA bill, they said.