Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, endorsed the bill and placed it on the Judiciary Committee's calendar.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, endorsed the bill and placed it on the Judiciary Committee's calendar. Flickr user Gage Skidmore

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FOIA Reform Bills Revived in Both Chambers of Congress

Effort to create 'presumption of openness' died at end of last Congress.

Bipartisan legislation to toughen the Freedom of Information Act has been reintroduced just weeks after advocates ran out of time in the previous Congress.

The FOIA Improvement Act, introduced by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on Tuesday won an endorsement from newly installed Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who placed it on this week’s committee calendar.

Like a companion bill introduced by Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Ellijah Cummings, D-Md., the measure would require agencies to operate under a “presumption of openness” when considering responses to requests for release of government information under FOIA, while also curbing the “overuse” of exemptions to withhold information. It would provide the Office of Government Information Services with new authority and independence while creating a consolidated online portal for FOIA requests. 

“The government ought to be accountable to the people, and transparency yields accountability,” Grassley said. “Unfortunately, federal agencies continue to find creative ways to avoid the level of transparency that FOIA was designed to foster. This bill takes an important step to stop agencies from hiding behind an exemption solely to protect their public image.”

The proposal got bogged down in the Senate last year due to a dispute over whether the changes would make it more difficult for agency attorneys to prosecute financial fraud. The House approved it last February.

 “At a time when the American people’s trust in the federal government is at an all-time low, we must strengthen and refine our laws that enable transparency and openness in government,” Issa said on Monday. “Requests through the Freedom of Information Act remain the best tool for the American people to hold their government accountable.  In this information technology driven era, it should be easier, not harder for citizens to have simpler and broader access to government information.”

Cummings added that “there should be a presumption of openness in this country, and agencies should have to justify their actions when they want to withhold information from the American people.”

Transparency advocacy groups -- disappointed by stalled efforts to pass the reforms in December -- were heartened this week. “We applaud the bills’ sponsors for their continued championship of openness and accountability in government,” said Patrice McDermott, executive director of the coalition OpentheGovernment.org. “We urge Congress and the administration to support their efforts and pass these critical reforms to improve the public’s access to information about its government.”

(Image via Flickr user Gage Skidmore)