Skip to comments.House passes sweeping FOIA reform legislation
Posted on 01/11/2016 4:27:27 PM PST by jazusamo
The House on Monday passed legislation that would create the most sweeping reforms to federal open records laws in nearly a decade.
Approved by voice vote, the measure would limit exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that now allow federal agencies to hold back information.
The bill would also create a single online portal for people to make FOIA requests and require agencies to publicly post frequently requested records online. The legislation has been years in the making, following persistent complaints about the FOIA process from journalists, the public and members of Congress.
"We regularly use the Freedom of Information Act and regularly find ourselves frustrated," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the bill's author and a former chairman of the House Oversight Committee.
Outside advocates, in addition to House and Senate lawmakers, are pushing to ensure the legislation finally crosses the finish line.
The last attempt to reform the FOIA process stalled, in 2014.
That bill had faced opposition in the Senate, with companies and government agencies raising concerns about what kinds of information could be released, but the legislation ended up unanimously passing the upper chamber in December.
But the legislation never came up for a vote in the House.
The new bill, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act, H.R. 653, represents the most significant push to overhaul the FOIA system since 2007.
Among other things, it would reform how agencies can redact some information using Exemption 5, which is often derisively referred to as the "withhold because you can" statute. In practice, it is supposed to apply to "interagency or intra-agency communication," such as draft documents.
The legislation, however, requires agencies to disclose any "records that embody the working law, effective policy, or the final decision of the agency." It also mirrors the Senate legislation in requiring that Exemption 5 cannot be used on any information older than 25 years.
The measure would codify nonbinding directions from the Obama administration and the Justice Department on how to fulfill document requests with a "presumption of openness," in addition to improving public digital access to records released through FOIA and making oversight of the process more independent.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), an original co-sponsor of the House bill and the top Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, lauded the passage of the bill on Monday.
"This bipartisan legislation finally puts into law the presumption of openness that should be the hallmark of the Freedom of Information Act, regardless of who occupies the White House," Cummings said in a statement. "I urge the Senate to take up this bill without delay and to send it to the President for his signature."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday would not say whether the Senate's version of the legislation would be placed on the calendar.
"He hasn't announced anything on that yet," a spokesman for McConnell said in an email.
A few hours before the House vote, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) -- McConnell's second-in-command, as majority whip -- spoke on the Senate floor and pushed for the upper chamber to take action on FOIA reform.
"I hope this chamber will soon join our colleagues in the House and consider this important legislation," he said. "There may be some areas we have to make some slight changes, but essentially, this presumptive notion of openness is important to the functioning of our democratic form of government and I look forward to us passing the law passed by the House chamber ... later today."
Advocacy groups say they are determined to get a reform bill to President Obama's desk before he leaves office.
Elizabeth Hempowicz, a public policy associate at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), said that the group will begin writing letters, making phone calls and paying office visits to senators to build support for the bill.
"I'm going to cross my fingers and say that I hope this is the year for FOIA reform," she said. "People are really coming to the table in hopes of getting something passed, something with some real teeth in it."
POGO said it has been working with outside entities -- including industries and government agencies -- to resolve any issues they might have with the legislation.
During the last attempt at FOIA reform, the Federal Trade Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission reportedly warned that the legislation could lead to violations of attorney-client privilege.
Last year, the Department of Defense proposed adding a new exemption for unclassified "military tactics, techniques and procedures." It was not added as a provision to the National Defense Authorization Act, and the department is expected to lobby to have it included in any reform to the process.
Passage of the FOIA bill in the House puts the reform effort "in good shape," said Michael Macleod-Ball, chief of staff at the ACLU Washington legislative office.
The ACLU and POGO are among roughly 70 organizations that are pushing Congress to enact FOIA reform.
There are some differences between the two versions of the bill, but advocates and lawmakers say the differences should be fairly easy to overcome.
"The expected vote in the House is a testament to the strong, bipartisan support in Congress for strengthening FOIA and improving Americans' access to government information," said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, prior to the House vote.
"I'm optimistic that it will help to clear up any remaining issues that our colleagues may have, and that we'll soon send a bill to the President's desk," he said.
One advocacy group that has been leading the charge on FOIA reforms, however, criticized what it said were last-minute additions to the House bill, saying they would exempt the intelligence community from certain provisions of the FOIA amendments, including the consultation process.
"Exempting the Intelligence Community agencies, which most need the reforms, from the consultation process weakens the reform intended by the committee," OpenTheGovernment.org said in a release.
The amendments "are particularly offensive in this bill intended to promote openness across the federal government," said Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org.
- This post was updated at 7:10 p.m.
Obozo will veto this one for sure.
The problem about FOIA, is it ties up the government workers doing research for every frivolous fishing expedition, and we can’t do the job of protecting Americans.
I agree, the vote isn’t up yet in the House but it sounds like it’s a very bipartisan thing, maybe they can override a veto.
This is just for show. “See, even though we funded everything Obama wanted, we are going to get tough with him. REALLY..SEE!” And they know Obama will veto it. It’s just like voting to abolish Obamacare—while funding it at the same time. The GOP Hous and Senate are corrupt and only serve special interests, mostly hostile to the American public at large.
Then open the data bases to the people so we can do our own research. What are they trying to hide?
Voice vote.....that took balls. LOL!!!
Then there are the ones that ask for information on broad topics to tie up the government.
Now how does it sound? There are items I see everyday that are classified in order to keep it out of the media. If I speak up....I'm a homeless vet with no prospect of another job at my age.
The long and short of it is: if the whistle blower program was run by an outside agency, there are government employees that would keep everyone honest. As for FOIA, it needs to be scoped down so that it is not abused.
What are these databases you speak of? FOIAs normally seek to discover hard copy documents and memos. Then you have to deal with the classification issues.
Then open the data bases to the people so we can do our own research. What are they trying to hide?”””
Oh wait, ya mean the government has everything on hard copy? No databases? Are you joking? So it takes a freaking army of bureaucrats sitting in cubicles collecting government paychecks to pull up a GD hard copy memos or government docs? Classified? Are you joking?
So what? Every thing is done by hand? Hard copy memos and docs? That's a joke.
There are items I see everyday that are classified in order to keep it out of the media. If I speak up....I'm a homeless vet with no prospect of another job at my age.
You're a bureaucrat? Has government ever heard of computers or software which could easily separate classified/secret from public information? ??
This is insane Mr. Salvavida. People should be able to access this crap from their personal computers. It's either public information or it's not. Government has no way of separating the two? lol...You guys still do it by hand right?
Didn't Obama spend over a BILLION dollars on his Obamacare website?
Other than destroying our country and causing utter chaos, does government anything right?
And no, government has not devised reliable software to parse classified from unclassified. Hell, they can't even get seniors and mid-level management to classify documents properly. Everyone does computer based training annually on how to classify docs.....and then they promptly go about doing what they want as soon as the training is done.
Elect me president, and I'll fix it for you.
Everything considered, that has to be intentional to either intentionally delay the process or discourage folks from gaining information they have legal right to access.
Want data? Fund it.
Moreover, there is mythical thinking that there is this whole treasure-trove of information being withheld from them, and the simple fact is: the information they need to make decisions and plan their lives, is right in front of them. But they keep electing idiots, and expect things to get better, and be more transparent.
What BIG secret do you want to know? The U.S. is bankrupt. We do not enforce our laws, and we are an addicted society with gathering enemies.
What else is there?
Government has become so big, so vast, so corrupt, it’s really incomprehensible. A streamlined efficient system would be as data/information is created it’s automatically put into the data based system, with the classified stuff being omitted with shelf dates where it can be transferred automatically into the public database if need be. Software can easily be created which could all do this very efficiently. One could simply sit at home on their PC and access needed information which have a right to.
There’s no money in that, so there is no free market solution. It’s a pie-in-the-sky dream.
Yep, there is certainly no money is smaller efficient government. Government is simply too big to ever consider efficiency. They need more funding to make government even bigger. We're screwed.