Senate rejects attempt to weaken FOIA — for now

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Mitch McConnell’s attempt to weaken FOIA was thwarted — for now. (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

The Senate debate over the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is always controversial — in part because of the upper chamber’s insistence on marking the bill up in a secret session. But this year’s bill, which is being wrapped up on the floor this week, was punctuated by a win for open government.

When the NDAA came to the floor last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tried to attach a controversial cybersecurity measure as an amendment. While most senators appear to support the broad idea of the bill (known as the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, or CISA) it includes several highly controversial provisions — including one that would add an entirely new exemption to FOIA. Thanks to these provisions, privacy and transparency advocates, Sunlight included, have vehemently opposed the bill.

McConnell’s attempt to attach it to the NDAA was seen by many, including some supporters of the bill, as an attempt to avoid having a debate over those provisions as well as to put pressure on President Obama, who supports CISA but has threatened to veto the NDAA on other grounds.

A number of prominent Democrats expressed their disappointment with McConnell’s move in a letter, writing:

Adding CISA to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in a manner that allows neither debate nor amendment is ridiculous. … This is especially true given the President’s commitment to veto the NDAA for unrelated reasons. This is a pure political ploy that does nothing to advance America’s national security. We urge you to reconsider your efforts to jam through this important legislation in a manner that renders it meaningless.

The Senate acted on these concerns, voting against attaching the amendment to the broader bill.

This is a victory, but it is likely only temporary. The Senate can — and likely will — consider the bill on its own anytime McConnell decides it is appropriate. In the meantime, transparency advocates will keep fighting to kill it’s harmful FOIA provisions.