Bill to improve FOIA introduced

June 25, 2014 01:30

U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX) have introduced a bill to add provisions to the Freedom of Information Act. The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Leahy chairs.

Among the bill's provisions are a requirement that federal agencies adopt a "presumption of openness" when considering the release of government information and would reduce the overuse of exemptions to withhold information. The measure would also give the Office Of Government Information Services more independence and authority to mediate FOIA disputes.

“Both Democrats and Republicans understand that a commitment to transparency is a commitment to the American values of openness and accountability,” Leahy added.  “I value the strong partnerships that I have formed with Senator Cornyn on open government matters.  The FOIA reforms we have authored have garnered broad, bipartisan support, and I hope all senators will support the FOIA Improvement Act as well.”

Senator Cornyn said, “Open government is the hallmark of a healthy democracy, and the American people have a fundamental right to know what their government is doing.  I’m pleased to once again team up with Senator Leahy to strengthen FOIA and promote greater transparency across the board.”

An outline of the FOIA Improvement Act can be found here, and text of legislation can be found online.

Senator Leahy introduced the bill on the floor with these remarks:
"Mr. President, the Freedom of Information Act, FOIA, is one of our Nation's most important laws, established to give Americans greater access to their government and protect their ability to hold government accountable. In keeping with my commitment to support this law and expand its mission, today I join with Senator John Cornyn to introduce bipartisan legislation that will improve the implementation of FOIA.

I have sought for decades to make our government more open and transparent. Senator Cornyn has been an important partner in these efforts, and our collaboration has resulted in the enactment of several improvements to FOIA: the OPEN Government Act, the first major reform to FOIA in more than a decade; the OPEN FOIA Act, which increased the transparency of legislative exemptions to FOIA; and the Faster FOIA Act, which responded to the concerns of FOIA requestors and addressed agency delays in processing requests.

The FOIA Improvement Act we are introducing today will make additional improvements to the law. It will enshrine into law the presumption of openness that the President laid out on his first day in office. He said, ``The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.'' Our bipartisan legislation will require that Federal agencies consider the public interest in the disclosure of government information before invoking a FOIA exemption. It will provide additional independence for the Office of Government Information Services, OGIS, created by the OPEN Government Act in 2007, and reduce the overuse of Exemption 5 to withhold information by adding a public interest balancing test.

There has been significant progress in improving the FOIA process over the years, but I am concerned that the growing trend towards relying upon FOIA exemptions to withhold large swaths of government information is hindering the public's right to know. According to the 2013 Secrecy Report, Federal agencies used Exemption 5 more than 79,000 times in 2012--an incredible 41 percent increase from the previous year. This does not exemplify the presumption of openness that we expect from our Government, and that is why Senator Cornyn and I are introducing the FOIA Improvement Act today.

Both Democrats and Republicans understand that a commitment to transparency is a commitment to the American values of openness and accountability, and to the public's right to know what their government is doing. I value the strong partnership that I have formed with Senator Cornyn on open government matters. Ensuring an open government should be a nonpartisan issue, and I invite all Members to support the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014."