Congress is quite adept at protecting its self-interest while ignoring the public’s interest, but this week offered a glimmer of hope that lawmakers still care about good governance and accountability. On Monday, the Senate unanimously passed the Freedom of Information Act Improvement Act, a bill critical to changing the federal government’s culture of resistance to openness.
The House must move quickly to pass the legislation before lawmakers head home for the holidays.
The process of obtaining federal records is difficult and lengthy as it is. Agencies are notorious for stonewalling FOIA requests, sometimes taking years to respond before denying them on legally flimsy grounds. The Obama administration, which promised to be the most transparent in history, has been especially awful at providing public records. In fact, an Associated Press study determined the Obama administration is the least transparent in recent history — and getting worse by the year. “More often than ever,” the news organization reported, “the administration censored government files or outright denied access to them” and “under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, cited more legal exceptions it said justified withholding materials and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy.”
Individuals, think tanks, advocacy groups and the press should not have to go to federal court again and again to obtain documents that are public records under existing federal law. A big reason why federal officials consistently overreach and engage in ethically questionable or illegal behavior, then try to cover it all up, is their ability to keep incriminating emails, memos and other communications secret through FOIA exemptions or by ignoring the law completely.
The FOIA Improvement Act has many provisions, but among the most important are sections that codify the “presumption of openness” in existing law; make it easier for the public to access federal government information electronically; simplify the process of filing FOIA requests, because not everyone can afford to submit them through a law firm; clarify the public’s right to see “deliberative process” documents, especially those of historical interest; and strengthen the Office of Government Information Services, sometimes referred to as the FOIA ombudsman, to ensure FOIA compliance.
“Maintaining an open government is fundamental to our democracy. The FOIA Improvement Act will help open the government to all Americans by placing an emphasis on openness and transparency rather than allowing agencies simply to hide behind exemptions,” Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Pat Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement.
Now it’s up to the House to pass the bill and send it to President Barack Obama’s desk before the lame-duck session ends. Lawmakers could wrap up their work as soon as tonight. The national press and more than 70 transparency groups and government watchdogs support the bill. And the House unanimously passed similar FOIA reforms nearly a year ago. If representatives are committed to changing existing law, they’ll have to pass the Senate version.
Considering the Republican House’s frustrations with the White House’s consistent lack of responsiveness, voting for the FOIA Improvement Act is a no-brainer. Reps. Joe Heck and Mark Amodei, R-Nev., and Reps. Dina Titus and Steven Horsford, D-Nev., should urge leadership to bring the bill to the floor today.