The U.S. Senate on December 8 approved legislation (S. 2520) to require federal agencies to make more information available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The bipartisan FOIA Improvement Act, sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX), seeks to bring about more proactive disclosure of records, encourage enhanced agency compliance, and improve the FOIA process for both agencies and requesters.
“The Freedom of Information Act is one of our Nation’s most important laws,” said Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It is about giving Americans greater access to their government and to hold government accountable.”
The FOIA Improvement Act was unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 20. Similar legislation was approved by the House in February 2014, and that chamber is expected to take up the Senate version before Congress adjourns this month. If so, the President is expected to sign it.
FOIA was enacted in 1966 to establish a formal method for the public to request and receive information from the government. However, government watchdog groups have contended that government agencies are overusing various exemptions in the FOIA statute that allow for the withholding of records to protect sensitive information from disclosure. In addition, there have been numerous complaints that the agencies charge excessive fees in an effort to discourage citizens from making requests.
According 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 FOIA Improvement Act 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, and 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 legislation changes the existing requirements that certain records and reports be made available for public inspection to mandate that such records be made available in an electronic format in order to ease public access. It also codifies the presumption of openness the Obama administration established in a 2009 memo for releasing government information under FOIA. The standard mandates that an agency may withhold information only if it reasonably foresees a specific identifiable harm to an interest protected by an exemption, or if disclosure is prohibited by law.