The Senate this week unanimously approved bipartisan legislation aimed at strengthening the Freedom of Information Act, a law that allows the public to access federal records.
The House passed a similar bill unanimously in February, which means the measure has a good chance of landing on President Obama’s desk before the current session expires early next year — as long as House leaders put it on the schedule.
The current Congress, one of the least productive in U.S. history, could end on a positive note by sending the popular legislation to the White House. The Senate approved the bill despite early opposition from retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), who had warned that it could harm consumer protections.
“Maintaining an open government is fundamental to our democracy,” the lawmakers said, adding that their legislation would “open the government to all Americans by placing an emphasis on openness and transparency, rather than allowing agencies simply to hide behind exemptions.”
Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who sponsored the House bill, urged their House colleagues to approve the Senate version and send it to the president. They said in a joint statement Tuesday that the measure would “strengthen FOIA, the cornerstone of open-government law.”
More than 70 transparency groups have backed the bill, including Public Citizen, which applauded its passage.
“The measure makes important improvements that will allow groups like ours — fighting for the common good — to gain the information needed to better hold our nation’s leaders accountable and ensure the rights of citizens are upheld,” the group said in a statement.
Rockefeller offered little explanation for why he changed his mind about the FOIA bill, saying vaguely during an interview on Monday that “It’s sort of the internal workings of the Senate,” according to a Politico report.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has not said whether he will schedule the measure for a vote, and his office did not respond to an e-mail request for an answer on Wednesday morning.
Among the FOIA legislation’s key provisions, it would establish a “presumption of openness” with government records, codifying a directive that Obama issued to all federal agencies in 2009.
The measure would also limit a FOIA exemption that allows the government to withhold records that are subject to executive privilege or that are part of sensitive decision-making processes. It would requiring agencies to release the information after 25 years.
Transparency advocates have said the exception is widely misused.
Additionally, the Senate legislation would require the government to create a FOIA Web site for records requests and establish a committee that would be charged with recommending best practices. It would also eliminate FOIA fees when agencies fail to meet the statutory deadlines for responding to records requests.
The bill would not require disclosures of classified information. If signed into law, the legislation would mark the first change to the Freedom of Information act since 2007, when Congress approved the OPEN Government Act.
Despite the Obama’s “presumption of openness” order and his pledge to run the most transparent government in U.S. history, government watchdogs have criticized the current administration for being one of the most opaque in recent history.
An Associated Press analysis this year found that the administration has become more secretive over time, saying federal agencies censored and outright denied FOIA access in 2013 more than ever since Obama took office.
A separate report from the National Security Archive showed that 54 percent of all agencies have ignored Obama’s 2009 directive. The group also found that nearly half of all agencies have not updated their FOIA regulations to comply with amendments that Congress approved in 2007.