WASHINGTON, January 11, 2016 – The House passed/agreed on a motion to suspend the rules and pass the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act (H.R. 653), as amended. It was agreed to by voice vote.
H.R. 653 amends the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to promote greater government transparency and accountability. The bipartisan bill was approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform unanimously in March of last year. An amendment to the bill was then heavily negotiated between both parties. An overview of the bill is here.
The bill includes reforms that will have notable tangible impact. Importantly, the bill codifies the current Administration’s directive on the presumption of openness – requiring agencies to disclose information unless there is a foreseeable harm or legal requirement to withhold the information. Additionally, the bill narrows the use of FOIA’s Exemption 5, which has broadly expanded and cited to justify withholding important public interest information, including Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memos with key information on Bush-era torture program, targeted killing programs, and expansive NSA communications surveillance programs. Importantly, the bill also provides the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) with the ability to communicate directly with Congress and issue advisory opinions in mediation.
OpenTheGovernment.org strongly supports these provisions and others in H.R. 653. We object, however, to the last-minute inclusion of specific provisions to the floor amendment, apparently added at the behest of members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The changes include new language that would exempt the Intelligence Community from certain provisions of the FOIA amendments. This includes language that states that currently-protected information relating to “sources and methods” would not be subject to disclosure under any of the amendments in the bill, and another that would exempt the Intelligence Community from the reforms to the consultation process that the bill would put into place. Exempting the Intelligence Community agencies, which most need the reforms, from the consultation process weakens the reform intended by the Committee.
“The changes to the House FOIA bill, added as a result of a last-minute demand of HPSCI, is a pattern that is becoming all too familiar and objectionable” according to Patrice McDermott, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment.org. “The efforts to exempt the Intelligence Community are not acceptable. They are particularly offensive in this bill intended to promote openness across the federal government.”