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Passage of Open Government Measure Will Speed Records Requests and Help Make Agencies Accountable

Aug. 6, 2007

Passage of Open Government Measure Will Speed Records Requests and Help Make Agencies Accountable

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Legislation passed just before Congress left town for its August recess makes long-overdue changes to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that will speed agency responses to records requests and help open the government to average citizens, Public Citizen said today.

The Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act (S. 849), known as the OPEN Government Act, passed the Senate by unanimous consent on Friday night. Similar legislation passed the House of Representatives overwhelmingly in March.

“This bill is great for democracy and for open and accountable government,” said Linda Andros, legislative counsel with Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

FOIA was enacted more than 40 years ago so that the public could obtain government records to ensure the government operates in the public interest. However, far too often, people and businesses seeking records under FOIA face difficult roadblocks, inordinate delays and improper denials, all of which the government can routinely do with near impunity. 

Under the legislation that now heads to a conference committee, where some differences in the House and Senate versions will be ironed out, agencies will have strong incentives to comply with FOIA requests in a timely manner. The bill states that when a FOIA requester must file a lawsuit to obtain government records under FOIA because an agency is dragging its feet, the requester can obtain attorney fees even if the government releases the records before a court orders the records to be released. In that case, the fees can be obtained as long as the FOIA requester’s claim is not wholly unsubstantial.

The measure also restores meaningful deadlines for agency action under FOIA, clarifies that FOIA applies to agency records held by outside private contractors and creates a FOIA ombudsman to help resolve disputes between the public and agencies.

“Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), the sponsors of the legislation, should be congratulated for their persistence and diligence in passing this important step forward for public access to information,” said Laura MacCleery, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “The Freedom of Information Act has been allowed to atrophy from executive branch neglect for far too long. We look forward to assuring that the legislation remains intact through the conference.”

Working with Public Citizen and other organizations, Leahy and Cornyn overcame a lengthy hold by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who had objected to several of the reforms on behalf of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s Justice Department. Kyl finally agreed to negotiate after several editorials in Arizona newspapers exposed him as the sole senator blocking the bill from undergoing a Senate vote.