The Freedom of Information Act
Congress enacted the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to ensure the public has an open and full accounting on how its government is operating. FOIA was designed to guarantee the public has timely access to records from Executive Branch agencies with as few redactions as possible. FOIA is an invaluable law that is widely used by the public as well as reporters, academics, corporations, and nonprofit organizations.
Open The Government and its coalition partners are working to strengthen FOIA to keep government transparent and accountable to its people.
FOIA as Envisioned by Congress
Congress enacted FOIA in 1966 as a response to growing government secrecy and envisioned FOIA would herald a new age of government transparency. At its core, Congress sought to create a process by which the public would get access to documents quickly by setting a statutory deadline of twenty business days to process the requests. In theory, processing FOIA requests would be quick because of the expectation that the nine exemptions that allow agencies to redact certain information would only be applied rarely.
Recognizing that the law was not being implemented as it intended, over the past five decades Congress passed numerous amendments to further strengthen FOIA. For example, in 1996 it passed improvements to modernize FOIA to keep up with the emergence of electronic records like emails.
Why is Reform Necessary?
Despite numerous attempts at improving FOIA, agencies continue to routinely flout the law. Over the last decade, the number of active FOIA lawsuits has more than doubled as requesters grow frustrated with increasingly longer wait times. Despite requiring agencies to return records within twenty business days, it is not uncommon for requesters to wait years or even decades for responses.
Over the last few years, Executive branch oversight on agency compliance with FOIA has been nearly nonexistent. Following the election of President Biden, Open The Government and our coalition sent two letters to the Department of Justice asking it to publish new guidelines for the administration of FOIA, which it failed to do so for over a full year. It was only after a bicameral and bipartisan letter was sent from Congress that the DOJ published new guidance.
Unfortunately, these frustrations are common among the FOIA requester community. Despite numerous attempts by civil society to engage the Administration in good faith, the Executive branch has not prioritized bringing meaningful change.
OTG’s Efforts to Strengthen FOIA
Open The Government is advocating for meaningful reforms to the Freedom of Information Act by working closely with Congress to introduce legislation. Our work prioritizes common-sense improvements which will reduce delays, maximize proactive disclosures, and bring meaningful change to the courts. Open The Government is also strongly advocating for Congress to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in Argus Leader v. FMI which incorrectly interpreted the threshold for withholding business records held by the government. Working along with our coalition partners, Open The Government is delivering on a strong reform package that prioritizes the public’s right to know how its government is operating in order to hold it accountable to the public.