June 14, 2016
Public Citizen Applauds House Passage of FOIA Improvement Act
Statement of Susan Harley, Deputy Director, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division
Note: Late Monday afternoon, the U.S. House of Representatives passed by voice vote S. 337, a bill to amend the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Public Citizen cheered the U.S. Senate’s passage of S. 337 during Sunshine Week in March. The organization also was part of the coalition of groups calling for FOIA to be reformed before it turns 50 on July 4.
The landmark Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), enacted by Congress in 1966, is an essential key to unlocking our democracy. FOIA enables Americans to monitor what the government is up to and hold the government accountable for its actions, by giving the public an enforceable right to access government records, subject to nine narrow exemptions. Unfortunately, the government’s implementation of the law has had some real issues, including overuse of exemptions, most notably exemption 5 for internal agency deliberations.
The FOIA Improvement Act (S. 337) makes important changes to FOIA, including prohibiting the government from relying on exemption 5 to deny a FOIA requester records of internal agency deliberations created 25 years or more before the request was made. The FOIA Improvement Act also codifies the “presumption of openness” policy stated by President Obama on his first day in office. This presumption will require the government to release information unless the agency anticipates that disclosure would harm an interest protected by a FOIA exemption. Other improvements to the law will enhance the government’s proactive disclosure of frequently requested records, make it easier for a requester to submit a FOIA request online, limit the circumstances under which an agency can charge fees for a request when it misses the statutory deadlines for responding to that request, and expand the role of the government’s FOIA ombudsman, the Office of Government Information Services.
We look forward to the president signing this legislation and locking in place these new tools for increasing transparency.