SGI sends letter to Congress supporting FOIA reform

Ahead of this morning’s scheduled vote by the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on FOIA reform, our media coalition sent the following letter to the Committee’s leaders supporting H.R. 653, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2015. (Click here for a PDF version: SGI letter)

 

March 25, 2015

 

The Honorable Jason Chaffetz

Chairman

United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

2157 Rayburn Office Building

Washington, DC 20515

 

The Honorable Elijah Cummings

Ranking Member

United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

2471 Rayburn House Office Building

Washington, DC 20515

 

Dear Chairman Chaffetz and Ranking Member Cummings,

The Sunshine in Government Initiative writes to support H.R. 653, the FOIA Oversight and Improvement Act of 2015. We respectfully urge the Committee to vote to approve this legislation so it may be considered by the full House of Representatives.

SGI is a coalition of media associations that for a decade has promoted ways to improve FOIA. This legislation represents an opportunity for Congress to act in a bipartisan way to make our government more open and accountable to the American public. The legislation is nearly identical to legislation that the U.S. House passed 410-0 last year.

The provisions in H.R. 653 focus on making the FOIA process work more reliably and efficiently. By enacting H.R. 653, Congress would clarify that the Office of Government Information Services speaks with an independent voice and its testimony and recommendations should not be reviewed ahead of time by the Office of Management and Budget or any other federal agency. It also requires a central portal for agencies to receive requests.

For the foregoing reasons, we strongly support H.R. 653 and urge the Committee to approve this legislation so it may be considered by the full House of Representatives.

Sincerely,

 

Rick Blum

Director

 

Fact Sheet on H.R. 653

 

The FOIA Oversight and Improvement Act of 2015

 

The bill takes a number of steps to fix persistent problems that FOIA requesters face by improving the federal government’s handling of FOIA requests. Specifically, H.R. 653:

  1. 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 and pre-publication reviews should end. The bill also helps OGIS have a stronger impact on compliance with FOIA by requiring OGIS to annually report on its use of advisory opinions and reviews of agency FOIA programs.
  2. Writes into law the current policy of the federal government to start considering a FOIA request with a presumption of disclosure. That means agencies may withhold information only if they reasonably foresee that disclosure would cause specific, identifiable harm. Agencies have both disclosed and withheld information applying this same standard since 2009.
  3. Pushes agencies to modernize technology in responding to FOIA requests. The bill requires agencies to accept FOIA requests by email and requires the development of a consolidated request tracking system.
  4. Requires agencies to submit annual FOIA processing statistics a month earlier each year so they are available for Sunshine Week. Many news organizations focus on open government during Sunshine Week, a campaign to increase awareness of open government by news organizations and celebrated around the country. The deadline for agencies to report their annual FOIA statistics would be moved from April 1 to March 1.
  5. 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, however other exemptions (for example, protecting privacy) still apply.

 

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