FOIA Improvement Act unanimously passes Senate, heads to House

Adam Marshall | Freedom of Information | Commentary | December 9, 2014

After a last minute hold was released, the Senate unanimously passed the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014 yesterday. The Act, which strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), will now head to the House for its approval.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) lifted his hold on the bill late in the day on Monday, allowing the bill to proceed. When asked about the reasons for his delay, the Senator rather mysteriously said, “it’s sort of the internal workings of the Senate.” Lifting the hold allowed Sen. Leahy to go to the floor and secure the unanimous consent of the Senate.

The Senate bill was co-sponsored by senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas).

One of the most important changes included in the act is codifying the “presumption of disclosure” that was announced by President Obama and Attorney General Holder in 2009. Including this presumption in the law itself will help ensure that FOIA requests from reporters and members of the public are not hindered by policy changes in subsequent administrations. Under the new standard, and agency may only withhold information if it “reasonably foresees that disclosure would harm an interest protected by an exemption” or another provision of law.

Other crucial improvements include implementing a 25-year sunset provision on certain aspects of Exemption 5, ensuring that requesters are not charged fees when agencies fail to meet their legal obligations, and strengthening the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS).

The bipartisan Act is broadly supported by numerous journalism and transparency groups, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. In November, more than 70 such groups wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee expressing their support for the measure.

The Act will now be taken up by the House, which unanimously passed a similar act in February 2014.

The Reporters Committee supports the passage of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014, and calls on all lawmakers to do the same. FOIA is an essential component of our democracy, and strengthening it is in the interest of everyone.