Congress moves on FOIA reform

[Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press statement]

FOIA reform is heating up during Sunshine Week.

The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly today in favor of a sweeping Freedom of Information Act reform bill with provisions for a tracking system, stronger agency reporting requirements and a national information advocate designed to act as an ombudsman for public records disputes.

Eighty Republicans joined 228 Democrats in approving the Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 2007 by a 308-117 vote.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard from reform advocates during hearings today on a similar bill, which was introduced Tuesday by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

And the White House has weighed in on the debate, issuing a statement today calling congressional action in this area “premature and counterproductive” in light of the agency reforms underway in response to President Bush’s 2005 executive order calling for improvements in processing FOIA requests.

The Senate bill differs in several ways from its House counterpart in that the ombudsman has different duties. The Senate bill also does not address FOIA’s discretionary exemptions.

However, the Senate version has stiffer penalties for agency noncompliance with deadlines for responding to requests. Under the Senate bill, if agencies take too long to respond, they will lose the ability to assert certain exemptions for withholding documents. In the House version, the agency instead loses the ability to charge any search fees.

Tom Curley, president and chief executive officer of The Associated Press, testified before the Judiciary Committee that penalties are crucial if FOIA is to fulfill its promise of keeping citizens informed.

“FOIA was a promise to the people that whatever they might want to know about their government they could find out, and that the law would back them in all but a few kinds of highly sensitive or confidential matters,” said Curley, who testified on behalf of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups that includes The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the nonprofit National Security Archive, a frequent FOIA user, told the committee that by making attorney fees easier for requesters to get, the bill will allow groups such as hers to better extract from agencies documents they are legally entitled to. Fuchs said FOIA amendments will also set a new tone for agencies reluctant to give up documents.

“Instead of viewing the public as the customer or as part of the team," Fuchs said, "the handling of FOIA programs at some agencies suggest that the public is considered the enemy and any effort to obstruct or interfere with the meddlesome public will be tolerated.”

The White House, in its statement of policy attacking the language of the House bill issued today, said the 2005 FOIA executive order was specifically designed to make FOIA more “customer-oriented” and that before Congress makes any changes to the law, agencies should be given time to revise their approach to FOIA in light of the executive order.

“[S]everal of the bill’s provisions would impose substantial administrative and financial burdens on the Executive Branch," the statement reads. "These provisions could result in slower, not faster, agency processing of FOIA requests.”

The House also passed two other open government bills today. One would make contributions to presidential libraries public. The other would rescind Bush's 2001 executive order authorizing current and former presidents and vice presidents to withhold their papers from the public.

article originally published at http://www.rcfp.org/news/2007/0315-foi-congre.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey