On February 25, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill (H.R. 1211) to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and increase transparency and accountability in government. The bipartisan legislation, introduced by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and approved unanimously by a vote of 410-0, seeks to bring about more proactive disclosure of records, encourage enhanced agency compliance, and improve the FOIA process for both agencies and requesters.
“As citizen watchdogs, Americans have the right to keep an eye on their government and are entitled to a federal government that is both transparent and accountable,” said Issa, Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “Disclosure should be timely, accurate, and routine.”
FOIA was enacted in 1966 in to establish a formal method for the public to request and receive information from the government. However, government watchdog groups assert that government agencies are overusing various exemptions in the FOIA statute that allow for records to be withheld to protect sensitive information. In addition, there have been numerous complaints that the agencies charge excessive fees, which some groups attribute to an effort to discourage citizens from making requests.
According to a report of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the backlog of FOIA requests has increased significantly in recent years, from 597,415 in fiscal year 2010 to 644,165 in fiscal year 2011, a 7.8% increase.
The legislation attempts to reduce the backlog of FOIA requests by:
- Increasing the amount of agency information made available through proactive disclosure
- Increasing the oversight responsibilities of agency chief FOIA officers
- Strengthening the role of the Office of Government Information Services, an entity created by the OPEN Government Act of 2007 to act as a FOIA ombudsman for agencies and requesters and to provide alternate dispute resolution to resolve FOIA cases.
The measure is awaiting consideration by the Senate.