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Groups Urge Senate to Enact FOIA Reform on the Law’s 41st Birthday

July 3, 2007

Groups Urge Senate to Enact FOIA Reform on the Law’s 41st Birthday

WASHINGTON, DC – As the 41st birthday of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) approaches, a coalition of groups urged the U.S. Congress to pass a bill – currently locked behind a closed door – that would reform the FOIA and make it work better for the public. The OPEN Government Act (S. 849) would enact common-sense reforms to the FOIA and put in place incentives for federal agencies to process FOIA requests from the public in a timely manner.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark law on July 4, 1966, he declared: “A democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation will permit.” Indeed, when members of the public have diligently pursued information under the FOIA, they have identified government waste and mismanagement and exposed significant controversies about government programs.

Our government is not at its best, however, when it takes up to 20 years for a FOIA request to be processed, agencies routinely lose FOIA requests because they have no tracking system and the government leads requesters into litigation only to release requested documents on the eve of a judicial decision, as several studies have demonstrated.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) proposed the OPEN Government Act of 2007 (S. 849). The bill aims to solve some of the FOIA’s persistent problems by:

• Creating a tracking system for FOIA requests so they are not lost, forgotten and ignored;

• Clarifying the time limits for agency responses;

• Authorizing the recovery of reasonable attorneys fees for requesters who prevail in FOIA litigation, including when a government agency releases records in response to a lawsuit before a judge rules on the case;

• Requiring reports to Congress on how agencies handle FOIA requests; and

• Creating a FOIA ombudsman to help resolve disputes between members of the public and agencies without litigation.

The bill has strong bipartisan support. The United States House of Representatives passed a similar bill by an overwhelming majority vote (308-117) in March 2007, which included 80 Republican members of Congress.

The concerns raised by some federal agencies have been addressed by the managers’ amendment SA 1147 and lack merit. And a new suggestion – that attorneys fees be permitted only when the person making the FOIA request can prove that the government acted in bad faith – would actually weaken FOIA, making it virtually impossible for FOIA requesters to obtain records under the FOIA. In contrast, the attorneys fees provision currently in the bill, which would restore the ability of FOIA requesters to receive attorneys fees when their cases cause an agency to release records before the court makes a decision, would strengthen FOIA and the democratic principles it promotes.

The OPEN Government Act of 2007 is supported by a wide range of organizations and individuals across the ideological, political, and economic spectrum:

• The United States Chamber of Commerce;

• The National Association of Manufacturers;

• More than 100 public interest organizations, historical groups and associations, including: the American Library Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Taxpayers Union and the Liberty Coalition;

• The Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition comprised of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Associated Press, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Newspapers Association, the Newspaper Association of America, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Society of Professional Journalists;

• Public Citizen;

• The American Civil Liberties Union;

• The National Security Archive;

• 10 members of the Arizona State Senate;

• The Open Society Policy Center;

• David Keene, Chairman, American Conservative Union;

• John W. Whitehead, President, The Rutherford Institute;

• Thomas R. Pickering, former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and United States Ambassador to the United Nations;

• Bob Barr, former member of Congress;

• Veterans for Common Sense;

• The Andrew Jackson Society;

• Americans for Tax Reform; and others.

In addition, editorial and op-ed pages in newspapers across the country have reflected strong public support for the reforms.

The undersigned groups called upon the Senate to permit this good government measure to be brought to the floor for a debate and vote, and not to allow it to be brought down by legislative tactics and poison pill amendments.

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Organizations Issuing the Release:

American Association of Law Libraries

American Civil Liberties Union

American Library Association

Association of American Physicians and Surgeons

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW)

Cyber Privacy Project

Doctors for Open Government (DFOG)

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Ethics in Government Group

Georgians for Open Government

Liberty Coalition

National Coalition for History

National Freedom of Information Center

National Security Archive

National Taxpayers Union

National Whistleblower Center

Natural Solutions Foundation

OMB Watch


Pain Relief Network

Public Citizen

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Republican Liberty Caucus

Semmelweis Society International (SSI)

Student Health Integrity Project (SHIP)

The New Grady Coalition

The Pullins Report

The Rutherford Institute

United States Chamber of Commerce

US Bill of Rights Foundation

VA Whistleblowers Coalition