The prospects for quick Congressional action on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) modernization got a boost in early February with the reintroduction of bipartisan legislation and with quick action in the Senate.
On February 5, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the FOIA Improvements Act of 2015, introduced by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT). In the House, Representatives Darryl Issa (R-CA) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD) introduced the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2015. Both bills seek to bring about more proactive disclosure of government records, encourage enhanced agency compliance, and improve the FOIA process for both agencies and requesters.
In the last Congress, the House and Senate passed similar bills to adopt a “Presumption of Openness” when considering the release of government information under FOIA. The measures sought to reduce the overuse of exemptions to withhold information from the public, and provide the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) with added independence and authority to help mediate FOIA disputes. However, Congress adjourned before the two chambers could resolve minor differences in the competing bills.
Given how close they were to being enacted, the bills are expected to move quickly through both Chambers. “The FOIA Improvement Act of 2015 reflects the input of both sides of the aisle, the open government community, the Administration, and many other stakeholders, said Sen. Leahy in a press release following the Senate Judiciary Committee vote.
“It is the product of careful negotiations, and it marks an historic step forward in our continued effort to open the government,” he continued. “The Senate should take up and pass this bill so it can be considered by the House and enacted this year.”
By increasing the amount of agency information made available through proactive disclosure, the FOIA reform legislation is expected to promote the modernization of records management policies and practices at federal agencies, according to Liz Icenogle, ARMA International’s director of government affairs. “It will be an additional catalyst to already existing efforts by the federal government to preserve, maintain and handle government records in electronic formats,” she said.
Those existing efforts include the President’s 2011 Managing Government Records Memorandum, which seeks to update federal records management policies and practices for the digital age; and implementation of H.R. 1233, signed by President Obama on November 26, which updates an antiquated Federal Records Act that has made it difficult for federal professionals who manage records to handle the growing volume of electronic communications.
Icenogle observed that FOIA reform will change 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.
“Compliance with these provisions will require the development of new policies and procedures to recognize electronic communications that qualify as government records, and to make more of those records available for public access,” she said. “This, in turn, will improve the effectiveness of government programs as critical information is more readily available and accessible for decision making.”