4 things to know about the new FOIA reform bill

Darrell Issa. (Photo credit: Darrell Issa/Flickr)

Nearing its 50th anniversary, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) saw its biggest overhaul since 2007 yesterday when the House passed The FOIA Act. The day before the vote, the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform released a 39-page report calling the current system “hobbled and broken.” This bill passed by the House yesterday aims to amend the FOIA to strengthen government information sharing.

It has bipartisan support

While expanding the public’s access to government records has come close to the the Oval Office before, it now has more bipartisan support than ever — so much that it was fast-tracked for a voice vote in the House.

Sponsored by Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the updated FOIA legislation makes it easier for the public to obtain government records. The bill contains over 54 co-sponsors in the House with a near 50/50 split of Republicans and Democrats.

It promotes transparency and accountability

The legislation creates a single FOIA request portal for agencies — limiting the time that certain documents are exempt from disclosure — and requires more information to be publicly available online.

It also requires that federal agencies and departments adopt a policy that promotes public release of documents. If said organizations are to withhold the requested information, they must identify imminent harm that would occur if the information were to be released.

“The bill moving forward in the House would change the presumption that government information is secret to a presumption of openness and modernize the system for processing requests so that agencies provide records online in a publicly accessible format,” writes Matthew Daly of the Associated Press.

It isn’t perfect…

While the bill enjoys support from both sides of the aisle, the White House remains mum on the subject, albeit criticizing Congress for exempting itself from the transparency requirement they crafted.

The new bill is surely a victory for transparency and openness, but it fails to address a key aspect: corporations that overwhelm agencies with document requests and reselling them to various outlets. Journalists and other citizen requests are then crowded out.

Margaret B. Kwoka, an assistant professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, found in her study that commercial resellers made up the majority of requests and multiple agencies. Kwoka found that resellers made up over three-fourths of requests at the FDA and 96 percent of the requests at the Defense Logistics Agency.

Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, added a last-minute inclusion exempting the intelligence community from certain provisions of the FOIA amendments, specifically information that “would adversely affect intelligence sources and methods,” according to the bill. Many open government and media groups, such as OpenTheGovernment.org, support the bill, but oppose the provision and the way it was inserted.

…but it improves a broken system

Many journalists, academics and executives are accustomed to seeing their requests neglected, delayed or rejected, but the FOIA Act was created to allow such individuals to hold the government accountable.

Last year, foiaproject.org sent a simple FOIA request to 21 federal agencies. Of the 21, only seven agencies provided usable records within 65 business days. Ten agencies either did not respond in that time or denied the request, according to the report. Surprisingly, the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy — the department responsible for promoting compliance with records requests — failed to comply.

Republicans bemoan the record-setting 159,741 backlogged requests in the 2014 fiscal year, with agencies citing exemptions more than 550,000 times to withhold information related to nearly 220,000 requests.

Cummings, the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, defends the administration, citing the 28 percent increase in requests as the White House’s records staff has been cut by four percent.

The last major update to the open records law came nine years ago when legislation primarily expanded the scope of documents subject to release and established a contact in every agency responsible for processing requests.

At the very least, the new bill is an incremental step in the right direction. Regardless of the party in charge, incompetent response times, unreasonable redactions and abusive fees should be eliminated from the government.