The bill was introduced by former House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings (not pictured).

The bill was introduced by former House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings (not pictured). Molly Riley/AP

Modified FOIA Reform Bill Clears House Oversight Panel

GSA is preparing a centralized portal to consolidate all requests.

A bipartisan bill to impose stricter demands on agencies to cough up documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act advanced on Wednesday when the House and Government Reform Committee approved a version recently modified in preparation for floor action.

The FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act (H.R. 653) introduced by Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., would impose a 25-year sunset on all requested documents exempted under FOIA and strengthen mediation powers of the Office of Government Information Services within the National Archives and Records Administration.

It would task the General Services Administration and Office of Management and Budget with creating a consolidated FOIA request portal on the Web (a project already in the works) and it would codify existing procedures so that they would continue “no matter who is president,” as Cummings, ranking member of the panel, put it.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., offered a broad substitute amendment that included language requiring all agencies not already accepting FOIA requests by email to do so.

Panel Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, successfully attached an amendment that would narrow the ability of agencies to withhold documents on the deliberative process citing controlling legal authority. Chaffetz pointed to the White house Office of Legal Counsel, whose work products are often kept from FOIA requesters. The public “has a right to know how government decisions change,” he said. “Pre-decisional documents should be part of the public record.”

A second Chaffetz amendment would change “may” to “shall” in language he said “added incentives for agencies to comply” by making the government pay the legal expenses of a requester who takes a denial of documents to court and wins.

Cummings supported both after expressing some hesitation and noting modifications negotiated earlier.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney D-N.Y., introduced an amendment saying the bill should do nothing to weaken the exemptions for privacy enjoyed by financial institutions to protect the confidentiality, the “free flow of information, the good and the bad, that allows banks to be candid.”  Maloney withdrew the amendment with a promise that it will be included in the committee report and raised on the House floor. Confidentiality for financial institutions was one reason FOIA reform got held up by the Senate at the end of the past Congress.

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