FOIA reform bill dies after House fails to schedule vote

Adam Marshall | Freedom of Information | Commentary | December 12, 2014

A bipartisan FOIA reform bill failed to be put to a vote in the House on Thursday after it was unanimously approved by the Senate. The inaction spelled death for the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014, as House members are scheduled to leave town today and have not scheduled a vote on the measure.

One of the more frustrating aspects of the incident is that the House unanimously passed an even broader FOIA reform bill in February, leaving open government advocates wondering about the reasons for the House’s inaction.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who co-sponsored the Senate bill along with John Cornyn, R-Texas, blamed House Speaker John Boehner, tweeting on Thursday night, “And Boehner kills #FOIA improvements.”

When asked about the measure at a press conference earlier on Thursday, Speaker Boehner said “I have no knowledge of what the plan is for that bill.” It was, according to one report, “held at his desk”, meaning that no vote would take place.

According to another report, the delay and ultimate death of the legislation was the result of banking lobbyists, who urged House leaders not to bring it up. However, as experts noted, the Act did not directly address or affect financial institutions, so it is unclear what their objections might be.

Had it passed, the act would have codified the “presumption of disclosure” that was announced by President Obama and Attorney General Holder in 2009. It would have also made important changes to Exemption 5, which has been one of the most overused exemptions in recent years.

It arrived in the House after a last-second hold from Senator Rockefeller was lifted, which allowed the Senate to unanimously pass the act on December 8th. However, the delay made it more difficult for it to get on the House’s calendar before the end of the year, and may have contributed to its demise. As one article noted, “It’s possible that the House simply ran out of time.”

The act was 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.

Leahy released a statement today, stating, “In a political climate as divided as this, I had hoped that we could come together in favor of something as fundamental to our democracy as the public’s right to know. That government transparency and openness would not just be the standard applied to the Obama Administration but what is applied to every future administration. The FOIA Improvement Act would have done just that.”