Senate Unanimously Passes FOIA-Boosting Bill

The Senate has unanimously passed the FOIA Improvement Act, a bill that should boost government disclosure of information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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.

Speaking on the Senate floor March 16—the vote was smack in the middle of Sunshine Week (March 13-19), dedicated to open government—said that increasing numbers of government agencies "are simply finding ways to avoid their duties under FOIA altogether. They’re failing to proactively disclose information, and they’re abusing exemptions to withhold information that should be released to the public."

"Instead of kneejerk secrecy, the presumption of openness tells agencies to make openness and transparency their default setting," Grassley said of the bill.

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."

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 bill must still pass the House, or be reconciled with a similar bill, but Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) suggested the latter should not be a heavy lift.

"To reign in government, we must make it easy for everyone to see its overreach," he said. The House has already passed a similar bill introduced by Issa, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act. He said he was "looking forward to hammering out the details" in the two bills in conference, pass the result in the House, and send it to the President's desk.

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.