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Congress Votes To Broaden Openness Law

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Taking aim at Bush administration secrecy, Congress yesterday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would toughen the Freedom of Information Act and penalize government agencies that fail to surrender public documents on time.

The bill would speed the process of releasing government documents to the public under the FOIA, as the act is known, and broaden the information available to the public by including, for example, additional government contracting information. The measure passed the House by voice vote yesterday, less than a week after it was similarly approved by the Senate.

The White House has objected to some of the bill's provisions, but proponents expect it to clear the final hurdle during the congressional recess next week, when bills left unsigned for 10 days can pass without the president's signature.

"This is an amazing success story that should have happened 40 years ago," said Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University. The archive was established more than two decades ago to push for FOIA reform.

The bill would encourage faster compliance with FOIA requests. By law, agencies must respond within 20 days, but in practice the process can take months or years. Delays lengthened in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as agencies began to favor nondisclosure in the name of national security.

Under the measure, requests would be assigned public tracking numbers. Agencies that exceed the 20-day deadline for responses would be denied the right to charge requesters for research or copying costs.

The bill would strengthen the ability of people who sue over their FOIA requests to collect attorneys' fees and would establish an office at the National Archives to accept citizen complaints about unfulfilled FOIA requests, issue opinions and foster best practices.

"In an era of increased government secrecy, we cannot postpone reforming the very act that keeps our government open to the people whose government this is," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). "FOIA helps make government accountable and responsive to the people."

The bill stalled in the Senate earlier this year when Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) put a hold on it. But Kyl, now minority whip, reversed himself, becoming a co-sponsor of the revised Senate version that the House passed yesterday.

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