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FOIA News: House approves FOIA amendments

FOIA News (2015-16)Allan BlutsteinComment

House passes sweeping FOIA reform legislation

By Megan R. Wilson and Cristina Marcos, The Hill, Jan. 11, 2016

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.

Read more here.