Efforts to reform the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) advanced on both the legislative and administrative fronts in June as policymakers pushed to make the federal government more open and transparent.
On June 24, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and ranking Republican John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced bipartisan legislation to require federal agencies to adopt a “Presumption of Openness” when considering the release of government information under FOIA. The FOIA Improvement Act also seeks to reduce the overuse of exemptions to withhold information from the public, and it provides the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) with added independence and authority to help mediate FOIA disputes.
The FOIA Improvement Act is similar to a bill that overwhelmingly passed the House in February. That legislation, the FOIA Act, would require agencies to publicly disclose data and records associated with FOIA and would create a Chief FOIA Officers Council to ensure greater compliance with FOIA requirements across the federal government.
“Both Democrats and Republicans understand that a commitment to transparency is a commitment to the American values of openness and accountability,” Leahy stated in a press release announcing the introduction of his legislation. “The FOIA reforms we have authored have garnered broad, bipartisan support.”
Separately, the Freedom of Information Act Advisory Committee, which was established under the President’s Second Open Government National Action Plan announced in December 2013, met for the first time on June 24. The committee, chaired by OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet, discussed several priorities for improving the FOIA process, including addressing barriers to increased proactive disclosure, using technology and tagging to make the disclosed information more searchable and useful, and revising or eliminating fees for certain requesters.
The 20-member committee was appointed by Archivist of the United States David Ferriero in May. It consists of 10 members from within government and 10 private sector members who have considerable FOIA expertise. The committee will have two years to recommend legislative actions, policy changes, or executive actions to improve FOIA.
“A majority of the committee members think that FOIA would benefit from more oversight and accountability, whether through existing entities such as the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy or the Office of Government Information Services, the FOIA Ombudsman, or through an entity outside the executive branch,” a NARA official stated on the agency’s FOIA ombudsman blog