July 26, 2011

THIS YEAR MARKS the 45th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a crucial, if sometimes sluggish, vehicle through which journalists can demand greater government openness and accountability. In May, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) won unanimous Senate passage of the Faster FOIA Act, which would establish an advisory panel to examine the backlog of more than 69,000 FOIA requests. It’s time for the House to take it up.

While the panel would be authorized only to provide Congress with recommendations for further action to enhance the filing and receipt of FOIA requests, it would be a small step forward. At best, the panel could develop the means to enforce the 20-day standard for the screening of requests, which, in reality, can take months or years.

As much as FOIA can be a journalist’s best friend, it can also be a nightmare. Despite amendments in 2007 and 2009, the FOIA process remains beset by incompetence and lack of guidance for evaluating requests. “The overarching problem is inadequate implementation and compliance among the agencies,” Malcolm Byrne, deputy director at the National Security Archive, told us.

Despite a 2009 executive order that instructed all federal agencies to open more documents to the public — to err on the side of openness when deciding whether to release documents — government offices have classified more documents since President Obama took office, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

The executive order tried to force all federal agencies to implement new regulations to ensure greater transparency in the disclosure process. But this hasn’t happened, either. A report by the Information Security Oversight Office in April found that less than half of 41 evaluated agencies had made significant efforts toward this end.

These facts should reinforce the need for progress, however modest, when it comes to improving the FOIA process. While there was no opposition to the Faster FOIA legislation in the Senate, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has yet to take a position on the bill, according to a spokesman. We urge him to embrace it in the same bipartisan spirit as the Senate, and to do so immediately.