A key House committee on March 25 approved a bill (H.R. 653) to require federal agencies to make more information available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Sponsored by Representatives Darryl Issa (R-CA) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the legislation, entitled the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2015, seeks to bring about more proactive disclosure of government records, encourage enhanced agency compliance, and improve the FOIA process for both agencies and requesters.
“Requests through the Freedom of Information Act remain the best tool for the American people to hold their government accountable,” Issa and Cummings said in a joint statement. “In this information technology driven era, it should be easier, not harder for citizens to have simpler and broader access to government information.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a similar bill (S. 337) on February 5 sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Both the full House and Senate passed FOIA reform legislation in 2014, but Congress adjourned before the two versions could be reconciled.
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 criticized that government agencies are overusing various exemptions in the FOIA statute that allow withholding records to protect sensitive information from disclosure. They also have made numerous accusations that the agencies charge excessive fees as a way to discourage citizens from making requests.
As reported by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act codifies the “presumption of openness” standard established in a March 2009 memorandum from the president to the heads of all executive departments and agencies. The memorandum said agencies should “adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure” as a commitment to FOIA principles, preemptively disclosing information prior to a public request and partially disclosing information when some aspect of a record must be withheld, rather than withholding information simply because it falls within the strict legal parameters of an exemption.
The pending legislation also would increase public access by improving electronic accessibility of agency records, clarifying the right to request information related to intra- and inter-agency memoranda or letters, standardizing the use of search and duplication fees by agencies, and requiring agencies to notify requestors of dispute resolution processes for denied requests. It also creates a Chief FOIA Officers Council responsible for informing government-wide FOIA administrators of best practices, and it establishes new FOIA-related oversight responsibilities and reporting requirements.
“This legislation will do more than improve public access and transparency,” said Liz Icenogle, the director of government relations at ARMA International. “It will facilitate the implementation of new policies, procedures and recordkeeping tools to account for the role of modern electronic communications."
The legislation is expected to be considered by the full House of Representatives soon after Congress returns from a two-week recess the week of April 13.