NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · WASHINGTON, D.C. · Freedom of Information · April 13, 2007
Floor vote next for Senate FOIA bill
April 13, 2007 · A bill overhauling key provisions of the Freedom of Information Act is ready to be taken up by the full Senate after winning approval Thursday from the Judiciary Committee.
By a voice vote, members of the Judiciary Committee approved the OPEN Government Act, which, among other changes, will create an ombudsman to hear public records disputes and allows for requesters to more easily recover attorney fees when those disputes end up in court.
During his statement, the bill’s co-sponsor and the committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), said there is a strong need for changes to the law.
“Americans who seek information under FOIA remain less likely to obtain it than during any other time in FOIA’s 40-year history,” he said.
No timetable has been announced for when the bill may go to the Senate floor for a vote, and discussion at Thursday’s committee hearing suggested negotiations remain as to whether the bill will be voted on in its current form.
Prior to the committee hearing, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) had put forward several possible amendments, none of which were approved. One of those amendments would have restricted who would be considered members of the news media for determining fees. Under current law, journalists are entitled to substantial fee reductions in certain circumstances, and the bill as approved Thursday would extend those benefits to bloggers, among others.
Kyl also sought an amendment to scale back changes to the provision of the law dealing with attorney fees. As it stands, the bill would allow requesters to obtain attorney fees when they file a lawsuit and the very act of that filing causes the agency to change its position and release the records it had been withholding.
Under the current law, a requester must obtain a judicial order before becoming eligible for attorney fees. Critics say this requirement provides an incentive for agencies to hold out until the requester files a costly lawsuit and then turn over the records before a judge has the chance to rule on anything.
The House of Representatives approved similar legislation (H.R. 1309) last month by an overwhelming 308-117 vote.
(S. 849, OPEN Government Act of 2007) — NW