Legislation reforming the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the law that grants anyone anywhere in the world the right to access information from the US federal government, passed the House Monday and is now headed to President Barack Obama's desk.
Passage of the legislation, dubbed the FOIA Improvement Act, comes weeks before the FOIA's 50th anniversary. The House passed the Senate's version of the bill, which is a somewhat watered down version of what the House originally introduced. But the bill Obama will see still contains reforms that will force government agencies to be more transparent and make it easier for journalists, historians, and the public to gain access to documents.
"The President looks forward to signing into law the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, which makes important upgrades to the FOIA system established nearly 50 years ago," said White House spokesperson Brandi Hoffine in a statement provided to VICE News. Hoffine also noted that the Obama administration believes "extending FOIA to Congress would serve as another important step in increasing government transparency."
When Congress passed FOIA legislation a half-century ago, lawmakers exempted themselves from information requests.
Open government groups have been working closely with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for nearly a decade to enact much needed changes to the FOIA, but they have been met with fierce resistance by the Department of Justice and other government agencies that argue reform legislation would increase the FOIA backlog, result in astronomical costs, and cause unforeseen problems with processing requests.
The watered-down provisions in the Senate version of the bill, passed in March, that the House took up were aimed to quell those fears. The FOIA reform bill will codify into law Obama's presidential memorandum, signed on his first day in office in 2009, that instructed all government agencies to "adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government."
The bill also directs the Office of Management and Budget to establish a single access website to allow requesters to submit FOIA requests and track the status of their requests, and grants more oversight powers to the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), also known as the FOIA Ombudsman, to ensure agencies are complying with the law.
'It's a momentous and hard-fought victory for transparency and the citizen's right to know.'
Most importantly, the bill would overhaul one of the most abused exemptions government agencies use to justify the withholding of records in their entirety: the B5 exemption, which has been dubbed the "withhold it because you can" exemption. Currently, when government agencies cite B5, which applies to internal deliberations, government agencies can withhold records under that exemption forever.
Under the FOIA Improvement Act, however, government agencies can only withhold records pertaining to internal deliberations for 25 years. Attorney-client privilege records, which also fall under B5, will not be part of the reform.
Nate Jones, the director of the FOIA project at George Washington University's National Security Archive, said that while transparency advocates did not get everything for which they advocated in the FOIA reform bill, "it's still a momentous and hard-fought victory for transparency and the citizen's right to know."
"Despite this win, for FOIA to be fundamentally improved, it remains imperative for the public to continue to put pressure on the Department of Justice, which is charged with carrying out the law — the same DOJ which a FOIA request showed previously lobbied against it," Jones said.
Representative Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee who has advocated for FOIA reforms, said in a statement that the bill "is a major milestone and big step forward in fixing a broken process. This bill will help make government more transparent and accountable to the public."
The ranking Democrat on the committee, Representative Elijah Cummings, agreed.
"This bill will put into law a presumption of transparency," he said, "and make it easier for the public to access information from the federal government."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), however, remains cautiously optimistic.
"Although the bill is a positive step forward, it falls short of fixing some of FOIA's biggest problems, including agency delay and stonewalling," the civil liberties group said in a statement. "EFF has previously called on Congress to provide more resources – both technical and financial – to speed up agency processing of FOIA requests. We think those incentives should be combined with penalties for agencies that do not meet deadlines or for personnel who actively thwart disclosure."
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