The chairman of the House panel with jurisdiction over the Freedom of Information Act says he sees no reason to rush ahead with changes in the act, despite the interest in the subject by the administration and his Senate counterpart, and he doubts there will be any final action on the FOIA this year.
Rep. Glenn English (D-Okla.), chairman of the House government information subcommittee, also said last week that there would be great reluctance on his panel "to start handing out blanket exemptions from the law just because various agencies and departments don't want to fool with it."
The Reagan administration unveiled Thursday an instantly controversial set of proposals to cut back sharply on the government records available under the law since Congress strengthened it seven years ago.
The administration's spokesman, assistant attorney general Jonathan C. Rose, said he felt "there is a compelling case that this act simply has to be revisited" in light of the burdens and expenses of implementing it.
Spokesmen for press and civil liberties groups charged that the administration is trying to undermine the FOIA instead of "fine-tuning" it as had been promised.
The proposal, unveiled before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee headed by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), would accord far more secrecy to business data, law enforcement records and documents "concerning individuals." It would completely exempt other records such as the "diaries, journals, telephone logs and desk calendars" maintained by government officials.
Jack Landau, director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the changes drafted by the Justice Department amounted to "a frontal assault" on the right of access to government records.
"There is a kind of visceral suspicion of this law on the part of the administration," Landau complained. "Basically, I think we're seeing the reaction of an administration made up primarily of businessmen who are used to responding only to a board of directors. We think the public is their board of directors."
Allan Adler, chief counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, said that a similar bill introduced previously by Hatch had already raised alarums and that the administration proposal would dictate even more secrecy, both for law enforcement records and for national security information.
Under the administration proposal, the attorney general would be able to prescribe secrecy for records concerning organized crime, terrorism and foreign counterintelligence. The courts would lose much of their authority to determine whether intelligence agency documents had been properly classified.
Hatch had intended to hold only one hearing--Thursday's--on his and the administration's bills, but he has since relented and agreed to hold at least one more session.
English said he and his House subcommittee members will be amenable to amendments "as long as the evidence for change is there." But he made plain that the administration will have to document its case. English said he plans to wait for the Senate to complete action before holding any House hearings.
"We have taken note of the fact that Sen. Hatch seems to be the most impatient person in town with regard to FOIA," English said in a telephone interview. "We thought we'd wait and see what Sen. Hatch produces and whether the United States Senate agrees with him."