FOIA-Boosting Bill Becomes Law

On the same day (June 30) that the National Association of Broadcasters filed a FOIA request with the FCC seeking the data the commission used to justify continued broadcast ownership regulations, the President signed a bill into law that should boost government responsiveness to such requests.

With House approval by voice vote June 13, both Houses of Congress passed the FOIA Improvement Act, requiring the government to presume openness when considering the release of information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

In addition to making openness the "default setting" for FOIA requests from journalists and the public, the bill: "places a 25-year sunset on the government’s ability to withhold certain documents that demonstrate how the government reaches decisions, which now can be withheld indefinitely from the public...requires agencies to make publicly available documents that have been requested and released three or more times under FOIA, and empowers the office of Government Information Services to better address FOIA issues through additional independence."

“From day one, my biggest priority in Congress has been to make government more open and responsive to the people it’s supposed to serve," said bill co-sponsor Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who co-sponsored the bill ( Rep. Elijah Cummings [D-Md.] was the other principal co-sponsor). "I’m proud to finally see these bipartisan reforms, which I’ve been fighting to implement for years, become a reality.”

“This critical update to the Freedom of Information Act is a major milestone that enshrines into law the people’s right to know what their government is actually doing. It’s a significant step forward to the accountable government the people deserve.”

"The stroke of the President's pen could serve as a catalyst to the federal agencies who were slow do adopt, much less, apply open government standards," said The Sunlight Foundation. "As the United States prepares to transition into a new executive branch, it is vital that the current administration bring America's open government into the 21st century."

“Early in his tenure, President Obama boasted that his administration would be the most transparent in our nation’s history," said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Unfortunately, under his leadership, the government has fallen woefully short of this promise.  To make matters worse, when members of the press and other Americans try to compel the government to hand over public records, federal agencies often come up with any number of excuses not to comply.  Well, the public’s work ought to be public, and the government’s default should always be in favor of transparency unless it can demonstrate a sound reason, backed up by law, to withhold information.

“With only about 200 days left in office, the president today finally took an important step toward making good on his promise by signing the bipartisan FOIA Improvement Act. This bill, which was the first bill I moved out of the Judiciary Committee, requires the bureaucracy to adopt a presumption of openness when processing Freedom of Information Act requests,” Grassley said.

He also said he would be holding a hearing this month on "trends" in government compliance as the FOIA law turns 50.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.