FOIA Improvement Bill Heads to President's Desk

With the House approval by voice vote Monday, both Houses of Congress have passed the FOIA Improvement Act, which should boost government disclosure of information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), including requiring the government to presume openness when considering the release of information under FOIA.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously in March.

The FOIA Improvement Act, motormanned by Senate Judiciary chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), essentially establishes a rebuttable presumption that documents should be produced rather than withheld.

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."

It requires the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to create a single portal for submitting a FOIA request to any government agency. It also “requires agencies to proactively disclose documents that are likely to be of public interest in order to increase access to government documents outside the often onerous FOIA request process,” and “provides the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), an office created by the Leahy-Cornyn OPEN Government Act in 2007 to help mediate FOIA disputes, with additional independence and authority to carry out its work.”

The bill also beefs up the technology to improve the information request process.

The bill’s sponsors included the Democratic ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

“The FOIA Improvement Act ushers in the most significant reforms to FOIA since its enactment 50 years ago.  With the House’s unanimous passage of our legislation today, we ensure FOIA will remain strong for another 50 years,” Leahy said.  “The reforms in our bill enjoy broad bipartisan support, and I am glad the House has finally acted today to pass legislation I have long championed with Senator Cornyn.  I look forward to the President signing this historic bill into law.”

Public Citizen hailed passage.

"The landmark Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), enacted by Congress in 1966, is an essential key to unlocking our democracy," the group said. "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."

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.