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This congressional committee wants to hear all your FOIA gripes

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) speaks at the start of a hearing on May 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Brett Carlsen)
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You know that public record request you’ve waited years to receive? Don’t suffer in silence.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which basically exists to point out the White House’s deficiencies, has pulled up a virtual therapy couch for the public to unload about all the times the federal government stymied Freedom of Information Act requests.

The committee reached out to watchdogs groups and reporters for their tales, but also opened it up to anyone frustrated by the FOIA process. There’s a form on the committee Web site that allows you to check off which annoyances you’ve encountered, like: “s” or “Lengthy delays.”

“Journalists and citizens regularly raise concerns about the ineffectiveness of using the Freedom of Information Act,” Melissa Subbotin Sillin, the committee’s spokeswoman told the Loop. “There is a general frustration that the public’s records are being withheld from the public.”

She said the committee hears stories weekly about FOIA challenges. A reporter recently told Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) that a decade-old FOIA request had just been fulfilled, which spurred Chaffetz to begin investigating it, Sillin said.

When Congress returns from recess next week, the committee will hold a two-day hearing on FOIA obstruction with witnesses from federal agencies, watchdog groups and the media.

“The chairman is concerned there are systematic problems in every agency associated with FOIA, it’s coming from multiple levels of management, but we won’t know that until we hear testimony,” she said. “Now we have a pretty substantial and comprehensive stack of examples from each of the different problems that FOIA users say are plaguing the system.”

The scope of the committee’s collection of FOIA gripes is “probably unprecedented,” said Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “It is unusual in its breadth.”

Aftergood said the responses, and next week’s hearing, will bring to light the discrepancy between the demand for information and how agencies prioritize it.

The Obama White House gets a lot of grief for promising early on to be the most transparent administration ever and falling well short. Though there are serious problems with the process, Aftergood said, the White House doesn’t control the fine details of how an agency sets up its FOIA operations. Which is why Obama shouldn’t have set expectations so high.

“I think it was probably a mistake to make that announcement. It’s the kind of thing you should demonstrate with actions, not promise with words,” Aftergood told the Loop. “By making the statement you raise expectations through the roof…that was a tactical misjudgement. They should have waited to be congratulated.”

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