More needs to be done to fix FOIA
By Alfred J. Lechner, Jr., The Hill, July 6, 2016
Congress periodically updates the FOIA, yet federal agencies continue to find new ways to delay or avoid compliance. For example, although text messages and instant messages involving official government business are records subject to the FOIA, some agencies simply make no effort to store, locate, or search for these records, depriving the public of appropriate information. Others, such as the IRS, acknowledge that such messages are records subject to the FOIA, and yet do not preserve them long enough for a requestor to seek access to them. Cause of Action Institute has sued the IRS over an agreement it signed with its employee union to destroy instant messages sent between IRS employees. This is a violation of the Federal Records Act and makes FOIA requests for these communications impossible.
Agencies and their employees need to be incentivized to provide greater disclosure and penalized for non-compliance. Agencies should recognize and reward employees who timely produce public records. Congress should also enact penalties for agency non-compliance by making attorneys’ fees and costs mandatory if a FOIA requester has to sue to obtain records.
Since it was first enacted in 1966, Congress has passed major FOIA reform legislation in 1976, 1986, 1996 and 2007. The current decennial effort to amend the FOIA, while a welcome demonstration of congressional bipartisanship to promote Executive Branch transparency, is a missed opportunity to fix many longstanding, fundamental problems. Hopefully, the political will to solve these problems will manifest in time for the “FOIA Improvement Act of 2026.”
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