Congressional leaders call for GAO review of agency FOIA compliance

In a show of bipartisan and bicameral support for greater access to information, Congressional leaders have requested the Government Accountability Office conduct a comprehensive review of federal agency compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (Chairman Jason Chaffetz and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings) and the Senate Judiciary Committee (Chairman Charles Grassley, Ranking Member Patrick Leahy, and Senator John Cornyn) sent a letter to the Comptroller General of the United States on April 28, calling attention to the problems that FOIA requesters repeatedly report to Congress, including “indefinite delays, excessive redactions, and unnecessary barriers to accessing information.” 

The Congressional letter highlights barriers to accessing information, citing a recent AP report that found, in response to FOIA requests, agencies provided no information or redacted documents in 77 percent of all cases in 2015. It also cites a 15-year analysis produced by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which found that FOIA lawsuits reached an all-time high in FY 2015 (see David Burnham, FOIA Lawsuits Reach Records High). The letter asks for the GAO to conduct the review and produce reports on specific topics in order “To gain better insight into problems that maybe preventing requesters from obtaining the records they are entitled to under the law…”

The problems discussed in the Congressional letter depict a much different picture of the federal government’s FOIA performance than the one conveyed by the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy, which recently highlighted its “FOIA success stories from 2016-2016,” taken from the agencies 2016 Chief FOIA Officer Reports.

The Justice Department’s attempt to portray its FOIA compliance successes comes in the wake of widely publicized documents showing that the Justice Department actively worked to undermine legislation in the last Congress that would have significantly strengthened FOIA (read more on DOJ’s lobbying efforts, here). In spite of the lobbying by the Justice Department, Congress has moved forward this year in both chambers to advance FOIA reforms that include important measures needed to enhance public oversight that is critical to ensuring government accountability.

Greater access to government information stands out as one of the few clearly bipartisan and bicameral issues in Congress today, and the letter from the Congressional leaders charged with conducting oversight of the government’s FOIA operations is a good sign, as we look for meaningful FOIA reforms to become law before the FOIA’s 50th Anniversary on July 4th (read more about the #FixFOIAby50 campaign here)