Getting serious about FOIA reform

Washington is getting serious about FOIA reform.

The House primed the pump before Sunshine Week by passing The FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2014 (H.R. 1211), on a recorded vote of 410-0, building on FOIA’s non-partisan history and burgeoning bipartisan momentum. The Senate has kept it going with a Judiciary Committee hearing.

Several ways to strengthen FOIA, both the law itself and the way it works, seem to be getting attention. NARA’s Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) deserves a boost. FOIA should be updated to reflect advances in technology. Requesters ought to be able to get status information from agencies automatically. Agencies ought to be able to forward requests among offices as easily as your aunt passes along chain emails. A “presumption of openness” somehow isn’t already part of FOIA? A paragraph can fix that. Cataloging statutory exemptions to FOIA (“b(3) provisions”) will bring more scrutiny of they ways agencies deny information. We estimated over 300 different statutes exist for agencies to withhold information. And a standing body of agency FOIA personnel and FOIA experts can find fixes to longstanding problems. These are some of the ideas under consideration.

There’s a small window of opportunity to enact a bipartisan bill strengthening FOIA. Later this year elected officials will turn their heads to mid-term elections and positioning themselves for 2016, making the next few months perhaps the best chance for Congress to take action to make FOIA work better that we will see for some time.

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