3 things to know about a key FOIA reform bill making its way through Congress

March 25, 2015
Category: Uncategorized

A bill that would make significant changes to the Freedom of Information Act got a lift this morning when it was approved by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. This legislation represents the biggest amendment to America’s federal open records act since 2007 and comes months after a similar proposal failed to clear Congress near the end of last year.

Here’s what you need to know:

What’s it called?
The FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2015, or, if you prefer formal designations, H.R. 653.

What does it do?
There are a number of provisions in the bill. Among them:

  • Shines a light on old government deliberations. Want to know how the government made decisions in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis? This bill would modify a provision in the Freedom of Information Act that allows government agencies to withhold inter-agency memos and letters from the public, opening up records or information created more than 25 years ago.

    “If the only reason the government would deny a FOIA request is internal deliberations, if those internal deliberations are over 25 years old, then the government could no longer withhold that information,” said Rick Blum, director of the Sunshine in Government Initiative.

  • Creates a presumption of openness. The bill would write into law the idea that government agencies should err on the side of disclosure when faced with a Freedom of Information Act request. This point has been interpreted differently by different presidential regimes who have directed officials to behave differently when members of the public ask for records, Blum said. The bill establishes a legal standard which requires agencies to justify a reason for refusing a request.

  • Makes FOIA oversight more independent. This bill would take steps to ensure the autonomy of the Office for Government Information Services, which acts as a kind of ombudsman for the Freedom of Information Act. The office, which was created in 2007 to improve communication between requesters and federal agencies, periodically makes recommendations about how FOIA could be improved.

    These recommendations are currently submitted to federal agencies to ensure that they’re in line with the policy of the current presidential administration, Blum said. The proposed bill would allow these reports to be submitted directly to congressional committees and the president without review from any other federal agencies. This will likely make the FOIA ombudsman more transparent and candid about ways the act could be improved.

What happens next?
A similar bill, S. 337, has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. For the FOIA reform to become law, both measures must be passed by their respective houses and any differences between the two pieces of legislation must be resolved. The bill must then be signed into law by the president.