House moves FOIA reforms forward

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Photo credit: Flickr user opensourceway

Last night, the House of Representatives voted unanimously to pass the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act (FOIA Act). The bipartisan legislation, cosponsored by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., would institute a number of important reforms to the Freedom of Information Act.

Many of these reforms line up with the ideas previously outlined by the Obama administration, most recently in its second OGP National Action Plan, while taking them farther and ensuring that they will continue beyond the current administration.

Earlier this week, Sunlight joined more than two dozen organizations in showing our support for the bill. We are particularly excited about provisions that could lead to the creation of a single, government-wide portal for requestors to submit requests and open up frequently requested documents. The legislation also puts into statute the “presumption of openness” long argued for by the Obama administration. The legislation would also force agencies to justify withholding information, create a FOIA council and more.

The bill represents a number of important incremental improvements to the FOIA process, but it does not address some fundamental shortfalls in the way that the FOIA is implemented and viewed within the federal government. A “presumption of openness” and improved online infrastructure are important, but the bigger challenge will be getting agencies to change their posture away from one of non-disclosure and often aggressive litigation that is opposed to openness.

But, as Alex Howard argued in his comprehensive roundup, “While the bill may not be perfect, very few pieces of legislation are.” The FOIA Act is a big step in the right direction. It clearly shows that ensuring public access to government information is not a partisan issue, or even one that should divide the branches of government. We hope to see the Senate take up legislation in the near future so that both chambers can work together to send a strong FOIA reform bill to President Obama’s desk for him to sign.