Media coalition applauds House approval of FOIA reforms:
House unanimous vote sends FOIA reforms to
President’s desk ahead of FOIA’s 50th anniversary on July 4
The media associations in the Sunshine in Government Initiative applaud today’s House vote to approve the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 (S. 337). After years of work on this bipartisan, bicameral set of reforms to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), members of the coalition celebrate these important steps to strengthen disclosure under FOIA.
These bipartisan FOIA reforms go to the President’s desk for his signature just days before transparency advocates celebrate the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the original FOIA into law on July 4, 1966.
“These FOIA reforms are a high-water mark for FOIA,” said Rick Blum, director of the coalition. “These changes will ensure future administrations respond to FOIA requests from a presumption of disclosure. Just as important, the bill also gives the FOIA Ombudsman the independence it needs to mediate FOIA disputes and make unflinching recommendations to Congress and the President on ways that agencies can improve their FOIA responses.”
Under the legislation, all agencies presumptively disclose information unless Congress has recognized an interest that justifies withholding and foreseeable harm would result from that disclosure. FOIA will have a more forceful advocate in the newly strengthened Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), empowered to assert its independent voice and encouraged to render opinions in mediation cases. And agencies will no longer be able to withhold internal deliberations that are older than 25 years and otherwise subject to disclosure. The enclosed fact sheet (below) details additional provisions in the legislation.
We are pleased that we are much closer to marking the 50th anniversary of the signing of the original Freedom of Information Act with a stronger FOIA. Much of that accomplishment is due to the hard work of the bill’s sponsors. We would like to especially thank House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Ut.) and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) for their leadership and hard work on this bi-partisan measure., as well as the work of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Ca.), who chaired the committee in the 113th Congress and introduced the original House bill (H.R. 653). In the Senate, we appreciate the commitment and work over several years by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Ia.), Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Senator John Cornyn (R-Tx.). Their bipartisan, bicameral efforts will help make our government more transparent and accountable to the public.
About the Sunshine in Government Initiative
The Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of nine media groups, has pushed for a vote by FOIA’s 50th anniversary. SGI members have worked together for a decade to speak with a united voice to strengthen open government policies and practices. Members of the Sunshine in Government Initiative include: American Society of News Editors, The Associated Press, Association of Alternative Newsmedia, National Newspaper Association, Newspaper Association of America, Online News Association, Radio Television Digital News Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Society of Professional Journalists.
For more information on the Fix FOIA by 50 Campaign and FOIA reform legislation:
On Twitter: #FixFOIAby50
Background on the Legislation
The bills that passed the House (H.R. 653) and Senate (S. 337) were both introduced on February 2, 2015. They are almost identical to each other and to bills approved by the full House and full Senate last year. The House bill, H.R. 653, was introduced by Darrell Issa (R-Ca.) and co-sponsors Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and referred to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. H.R. 653 passed the full house on January 11, 2016 by unanimous consent.
The Senate bill, S. 337, was introduced on February 2, 2015 by Senators John Cornyn (R-Tx.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Charles Grassley (R-Ia.) and co-sponsored by 2 additional senators. One week later, on February 9, 2015, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the measure by unanimous consent. S. 337 passed the full Senate on March 15, 2016.
Highlights in S. 337
The bill the House approved (S. 337) takes many of the same steps included in H.R. 653. Specifically, S. 337:
- Strengthens 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.
- Ensures 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.
- Pushes agencies to modernize technology in responding to FOIA requests by creating a single FOIA portal to accept FOIA requests for any agency.
- Requires agencies to submit annual FOIA processing statistics a month earlier each year so they are available for Sunshine Week.
- Limits 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.