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Bill seeks to end under-the-radar exemptions to FOI Act

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   June 7, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   June 7, 2005

Bill seeks to end under-the-radar exemptions to FOI Act

  • Sens. John Cornyn and Patrick Leahy’s latest bill would end the practice of lawmakers secretly carving out new FOI Act exemptions.

June 7, 2005  ·   Members of Congress would be prevented from slipping stealth exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act into unrelated bills, under legislation introduced today by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The bill would require any bill creating an exemption to the FOI Act to explicitly cite the provision of the act allowing such exceptions.

The legislation is identical to section 8 of the “OPEN Government Act,” a FOI Act reform bill introduced by Leahy and Cornyn in February. In his prepared Senate statement, Cornyn said the two senators will work to bring the new bill to President George W. Bush’s desk for his signature by July 4, the 39th anniversary of the enactment of the original FOI Act.

“The justification for this provision is simple,” Cornyn said. “Congress should not establish new secrecy provisions through secret means. If Congress is to establish a new exemption to [the FOI Act], it should do so in the open and in the light of day.”

Because the current section of the FOI Act allowing the exceptions does not require any particular notice that it is being invoked, senators and congressmen have been able to bury exemptions to the act deep in unrelated pieces of legislation.

There are at least 140 cases where congressional lawmakers have inserted such exemptions, according to a 2003 Justice Department report, Cox News Service reported last week.

The “section 8” bill would only allow a statute to invoke the exception section if it “specifically cites” that section of the FOI Act.

Cornyn said he was not aware of any opposition to what he referred to as “a common sense provision” and said he thinks it can be enacted into law quickly.

In addition to the exemption issue, the larger FOI Act reform bill also would require that agencies respond to an FOI request within 20 days or lose their ability to use an exemption. The bill also would create an ombudsman position in the Office of Government Services to mediate disputes between the government and record-seekers.

Leahy and Cornyn also have collaborated on the “Faster FOIA Act,” which would create a commission to study delays in processing FOI Act requests.

(S. 1181)TS

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