Nearly 50 years after the Freedom of Information Act became law, a bill with several key reforms to the Act is on its way to the president's desk for his signature.
The U.S. House of Represenatives today passed a bipartisan bill, previously unanimously approved by the Senate in March, (S. 337), which will write clearly into law the presumption of openness, give the FOIA Ombudsman the independent voice that Congress intended to recommend improvements to FOIA, and end the ability of agencies to withhold information revealing policy deliberations after 25 years. The key provisions include:
- Strengthening the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) by clarifying the Office must speak with an independent voice. Currently OGIS must seek input from other agencies and the Office of Management and Budget before making its recommendations for improving FOIA available to the public. This limits what OGIS can say.
- Ensuring future administrations start from a presumption of openness. That means agencies may withhold information only if they reasonably foresee that disclosure would cause specific, identifiable harm from one of the nine types of interests already protected by FOIA (such as personal privacy, national security and trade secrets). Agencies have used this same standard since 2009.
- Pushing agencies to modernize technology in responding to FOIA requests by creating a single FOIA portal to accept FOIA requests for any agency.
- Requiring agencies to submit annual FOIA processing statistics a month earlier each year so they are available for Sunshine Week.
- Limiting the ability of agencies to keep internal deliberations confidential to a period of 25 years. Agencies would lose the ability to cite Exemption 5 (protecting internal deliberations) in denying requests if the information is more than 25 years old.
“These FOIA reforms are a high-water mark for FOIA,” added Rick Blum, Director of the Sunshine in Government Initiative. “These changes will ensure future administrations respond to FOIA requests from a presumption of disclosure unless an agency reasonably foresees a harm from disclosure. Just as important, the bill also gives the FOIA Ombudsman the independence it needs to media FOIA disputes and make unflinching recommendations to Congress and the President on ways that agencies can improve their FOIA responses.”
The bill represents years of work by transparency advocates across the country, led by the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of nine media groups: RTDNA, the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, the National Newspaper Association, the Newspaper Association of America, the Online News Association, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists.