House passes FOIA reform bill

Emily Grannis | Freedom of Information | News | February 26, 2014

The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday unanimously passed the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act, paving the way for more streamlined Freedom of Information Act request processing and a stronger role for the independent agency charged with reviewing government compliance.

H. B. 1211 creates a presumption of openness, allowing a document to be withheld only if an agency “reasonably foresees that disclosure would cause specific identifiable harm to an interest protected by an exemption, or if disclosure is prohibited by law.” Current FOIA law simply instructs agencies to release non-exempt information, rather than starting from the presumption that all information should be released and only then applying narrow exemptions.

Along with the presumption that government documents should be available to the public, the reforms in H.B. 1211 call for agencies to post online any frequently requested documents.

The bill also calls for a centralized FOIA processing system. Requesters would fill out a standardized online form and get a tracking number, while agencies would save processing time by avoiding the need to input each request into different computer systems. Agencies now either use one of several portal systems, or have no formal online submission system. The bill would require a central FOIA website to be up and running within a year of these reforms becoming law.

The other major change the House approved yesterday would give the Office of Government Information Services responsibility for finding ways to improve agency compliance, and give specific guidance to agencies on the use of fees and fee waivers. OGIS is an independent agency that acts as a FOIA ombudsman. Under this bill, OGIS would also be required to submit a yearly report to the president summarizing recommendations to improve FOIA administration.

Rick Blum, director of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, said the House bill makes critical changes to FOIA that will help reporters and members of the public learn more about government.

“The House endorsed modernizing FOIA with technology to cut into long waits, strengthening the FOIA ombudsman to target problems and solutions, and pushing agencies to disclose more without being asked. The sponsors addressed current problems, ensured good ideas would last beyond the current administration and generally pushed the needle toward openness,” Blum said. “There's a new window of opportunity for Congress to make bipartisan improvements to FOIA. I am optimistic the Senate and administration will take advantage of it, work hard, and get FOIA reforms to the president’s desk.”

The House bill was introduced last March by Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking members on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

“As citizen watchdogs, Americans have the right to keep an eye on their government and are entitled to a federal government that is both transparent and accountable,” said Issa, who chairs the committee, in a statement after the bill passed. “Disclosure should be timely, accurate, and routine. H.R. 1211 enacts commonsense reforms that will reduce the backlog of FOIA requests from federal agencies by strengthening the Office of Government Information Services and creating an online request system. The reforms in the FOIA bill will strengthen agency compliance and make it easier for the public to access information from the federal government.”