New Bipartisan FOIA Bill Punches Back at Attacks

Bill will protect public access to information from private entities that do business with the government following Supreme Court decision.

The new Open and Responsive Government Act of 2019, introduced today, is intended to put the public’s interest ahead of corporate interests by restoring the public’s access to data the government collects from private companies. Key congressional leaders worked with open government advocates on the bipartisan legislation in order to stem the tide of recent headline-grabbing attacks against the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), including the Supreme Court decision in Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader, which overturned more than 40 years of FOIA precedent.

The bill would also address the EPA’s move to undermine FOIA by issuing regulations, without the legally required public notice and comment period, that appear to allow officials to withhold portions of documents as “not responsive” to a FOIA request, despite a federal court ruling forbidding the practice.

Introduced by several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the senators worked closely with transparency and accountability organizations such as Open The Government to counter the series of onslaughts against FOIA.

“In the Argus Leader case the Supreme Court tilted the scale in favor of secrecy and away from accountability. At the same time, federal agencies are abusing FOIA exemptions to the detriment of the public,” said Lisa Rosenberg, executive director, Open The Government. “This legislation is a necessary course correction that will help address waste and corruption while making it easier for public interest organizations and journalists to access information in the way FOIA intended.”

The senators also sent a letter to the EPA on Monday urging the agency to reconsider implementing its FOIA regulations update and to provide adequate opportunity for the public to review and comment on it.

“It is highly encouraging to work with these lawmakers who consistently defend the public’s right to know through their words and actions, and take immediate action when FOIA is attacked. Once we fix this urgent problem, we hope to take the next step and work with them to make FOIA even stronger,” said Rosenberg.

The past year alone has seen an onslaught of attacks against FOIA.

The biggest blow came when the Supreme Court issued a ruling that would let corporations decide whether the public was entitled to access government spending information. In addition to the court’s decision, the scandal-plagued Department of Interior proposed a new rule that would delay release of information and allow officials to arbitrarily decide what is released to the public. New Environmental Protection Agency regulations followed, restricting the public’s ability to submit requests and opening the door to increased politicization of FOIA.

“In a self-governed society, the people ought to know what their government is up to. Transparency laws like the Freedom of Information Act help provide access to information in the face of an opaque and obstinate government,” said Sen. Grassley in a speech on the Senate floor about the importance of FOIA in the wake of the Supreme Court decision and new regulations at DoI and EPA.

“The public’s work ought to be public. [Americans] deserve an accountable government and transparency leads to accountability.”