OpenTheGovernment.org Welcomes Leahy-Cornyn Bill to Improve FOIA

OpenTheGovernment.org strongly supports the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014, a bill introduced by longtime champions of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Senate Judiciary Chairman Leahy and Senator Cornyn. The bill addresses a number of issues that members of our coalition have identified as obstacles to the public’s ability to use the FOIA to get timely access to government records.

According to Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, “Passage of the FOIA Improvement Act would be a significant step toward the Administration’s promise of an ‘unprecedented’ level of government openness.”

Most notably, by narrowing the use of FOIA’s Exemption 5, the FOIA Improvement Act swings back toward the public interest the balance between protecting the government’s legitimate interests and making sure that the public has the information needed to make informed decisions.  Exemption 5 was intended, in large part, to allow agency officials the freedom to share ideas and advice off-the-record. Agencies, however, have expanded the scope of material they consider subject to Exemption 5 to the point that it covers practically anything that is not a final version of a document. The bill makes the common-sense steps of requiring agencies to weigh the public interest in the release of a requested document, and of making it clear that the exemption does not cover records that are more than 25 years old. The bill also codifies the current Administration’s guidance that agencies should process requests for information under the assumption that the record should be released.

 "The whole FOIA process must be simplified and streamlined—and we need more government information made available online in the first place. We also have to close the loopholes used by agencies to deny access to information,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight and chair of OTG's Steering Committee. “Taken together, the reforms proposed the House and Senate would go a long way to finally bring FOIA into the 21st Century." 

The Leahy-Cornyn bill also makes important changes that will allow the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) to better meet its dual responsibilities of mediating FOIA disputes and of monitoring agency compliance with the law. Among the changes that strengthen OGIS, the bill allows OGIS to report directly to Congress and the President, clarifies when OGIS has the ability to issue advisory opinions and, by making them a co-chair of a newly-created Chief FOIA Officers Council, gives OGIS strong lines of communication with agencies.

The FOIA Improvement Act builds on reforms that were included in a FOIA reform bill introduced by House Oversight and Government Reform Chair and Ranking Member, Representative Issa and Representative Cummings and passed by the House earlier this year. “The open government community is very pleased to see Congress acting to make FOIA work better for the public,” said Patrice McDermott. “We are eager to work with our champions in the House and Senate to pass a bill this year.” 

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