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Congress pushes to make more information public

Senators want to change practice of slipping language into bills that preclude the release of information to the public under FOIA.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, are pushing legislation to make Congress' activities more transparent after winning support last year to set a deadline for federal agencies to respond to requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act.

The two lawmakers are asking their colleagues to change the practice of slipping language into bills that would preclude the release of information to the public under FOIA.

In proposing the legislation, they have highlighted the little-known practice of Congress keeping information secret by writing exclusions to what can be revealed to the public through FOIA.

Often the congressional-written exemptions are tucked into fine print in the middle of complex bill language. An example cited by the Senate Judiciary Committee staff is an exemption in a consumer protection bill banning lead in toys that allows keeping some product information confidential if a foreign government requests it.

"Any material obtained from a foreign government agency, if the foreign government agency has requested confidential treatment, or has precluded such disclosure under other use limitations, as a condition of providing the material," the measure reads. Leahy and Cornyn said their bill would require lawmakers to "explicitly and clearly" state their intentions when they write in exemptions to FOIA.

The FOIA, first enacted in 1966, includes overall nine exemptions to what may be made public including national defense, foreign policy matters, internal agency personnel rules, trade secrets and law enforcement investigatory records.

The exemption targeted by the bill is that specifically excluded under congressional statutes. Leahy and Cornyn expressed some confidence their legislation will pass Congress even though a similar bill that cleared the Senate in 2005 was not taken up in the House.

This time, said Meredith Fuchs, legal counsel to the National Security Archive, "It's got a real good shot at passing."