Bill on FOIA Expansion in the House

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As early as this afternoon, Congress may be considering a bill to promote open government by strengthening FOIA. The Sunlight Foundation will be sending the following letter to Members of the House of Representatives today–we hope you join us and add your voice. To read–and track– HR 1309, the bill referenced here, follow it on Open Congress.

We are writing in support of the Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 2007 (H.R. 1309).

Transparent government is fundamental to democracy. We believe in the important promise of FOIA ­ an open government, with accessible information about government workings.

FOIA has failed to live up to its promise. Legally requested information about government arrives years late, incomplete, and after substantial bureaucratic hurdles. FOIA programs are full of structural inefficiencies and the commitment to openness is constantly compromised. In age of the Internet, excessive delays in processing FOIA requests are particularly unacceptable. Government information should be freely and easily available, and all agencies should start with a presumption of online publication. In the meantime, Congress should support this important bill.

The bill would reduce delays in agency processing of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by:

> Clarifying that FOIA requesters who are forced to bring legal action to push an agency to respond can become eligible to collect attorneys’ fees when their suit is successful or is a catalyst for a change in the agency’s position (the agency changes its position prior to judgment and releases documents).

> Requiring detailed and comparable data on processing times to be reported to Congress and the public.

> Preventing agencies from charging processing fees whenever they failed to meet the 20-working day response deadline.

The bill would improve customer service and accountability by:

> Requiring agencies to establish FOIA hotlines and tracking systems.

> Requiring additional annual reporting.

> Ensuring agencies specify the exemption relied upon for any redaction in a released document.

The core idea animating the Sunlight Foundation is that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” In the one year since we have opened our doors, thousands of citizens have responded to our efforts to open the government ­ we have tapped into a deep societal mistrust of government that comes from the culture of secrecy, and the failure of government to be more open.

That culture of secrecy is in full flower when federal agencies look on FOIA requests as something to be prevented and obstructed.

The bill would improve prompt resolution of FOIA disputes without litigation by creating an independent ombudsman to mediate FOIA disputes, and by clarifying the right of FOIA requesters to collect attorneys’ fees for successful litigation.

Finally, it also would create a presumption of openness – what Congress always intended.

This bill is very important. It will ensure that FOIA’s carefully prescribed exemptions to disclosure are used to truly protect the nation and not to protect against disclosure of information that is merely embarrassing to the government.

Thank you for your efforts to strengthen the accountability of our government agencies.

Sincerely,

Zephyr Teachout National Director The Sunlight Foundation

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