The Washington Post

Bipartisan FOIA bill aims to improve government transparency

Two senators this week proposed bipartisan legislation that would help ensure greater access to government records, adding further momentum to recent efforts to update Freedom of Information Act regulations.

The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), would restrict one of the most commonly used and contentious exemptions to the law and mandate a “presumption of openness” for agencies considering information requests.

Sen. Patrick Leahy( D-Vt.) walking to a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite).

The bill would also give the Office of Government Information Services authority to mediate FOIA disputes, with the goal of avoiding costly and time-consuming litigation.

“Open government is a hallmark of a healthy democracy, and the American people have a fundamental right to know what their government is doing,” Cornyn said in a statement.

FOIA is a nearly 48-year-old law that requires the government to disclose certain documents upon request by members of the public. Congress has shown a strong desire to update the statute’s regulations this year after numerous media and government-watchdog reports showed that most agencies do not comply with the existing requirements.

“Both Democrats and Republicans understand that a commitment to transparency is a commitment to the American values of openness and accountability,” Leahy said in a statement, adding that his bill has already garnered “broad, bipartisan support.”

President Obama promised on the first day of his first term that his administration would be the most transparent in U.S. history. He  issued a directive in 2009 saying that agencies should operate with a “presumption of disclosure” with most FOIA requests.

But an Associated Press analysis this year found that the administration has grown more secretive over time, with agencies censoring and outright denying FOIA access in 2013 more than ever since Obama took office.

Additionally, a report from the National Security Archive showed that 54 percent of all agencies have ignored the 2009 directive from Obama. The group also found that nearly half of all agencies have not updated their FOIA regulations to comply with amendments that Congress made to the law in 2007.

The Senate bill would turn the Obama directive into law.

“Putting it into statute is a very good thing, because we’d have a statutory policy to rely on rather than just a presidential directive when we have to litigate these cases,” said National Security Archive director Tom Blanton.

The Senate bill would also establish a 25-year limit on withholding documents under a FOIA exemption that allows the government to refuse records if the information is part of decision-making processes. Critics say the Obama administration has abused that rule, which they describe as the “withhold it because you want to” exception.

“Agencies routinely and needlessly withhold important information from the public,” said Anne Weismann, chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Weismann applauded the Senate legislation, saying it would “ensure the FOIA truly will be an effective tool for Americans to discover what our government is doing and why.”

The House in February unanimously passed its own FOIA bill that would set a six-month deadline for agencies to update their FOIA regulations. Like the Senate bill, the measure would also establish a statutory presumption of openness and expand the role of the Office of Government Information Services.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who sponsored the House legislation, said in a statement on Wednesday that he is “encouraged by the introduction of the Senate bill.” He added that he plans to work with Leahy and Cornyn in hopes of advancing FOIA reform into law before the end of the year.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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