NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · WASHINGTON, D.C. · Freedom of Information · July 28, 2006
FOIA advocates urge Congress to continue reforms
July 28, 2006 · Two open government advocates told U.S. representatives Wednesday that they should continue to push for reforming the Freedom of Information Act, primarily by adding an ombudsman or mediator to help speed the request process.
Tonda Rush of the National Newspaper Association and Patrice McDermott of OpenTheGovernment.org told members of the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Finance and Accountability that President Bush’s 2005 executive order on improving agencies’ disclosure of information does not go far enough to truly effect change.
“The executive order does not supplant the need for legislation,” Rush said. The order “fails to address some of the most pressing problems facing FOIA today, such as the lack of alternatives to litigation to resolve disputes, the lack of incentives to speed processing and excessive litigation costs.”
She outlined the executive order’s shortfalls to the representatives, emphasizing the need for an impartial party to serve as an ombudsman or mediator, much like some states have, to get involved with FOIA request denials or in situations where agencies are showing a “flagrant disregard for the process.”
McDermott, also testifying on behalf of the FOIA requester community, discussed the need for more congressional oversight. “There is no meaningful followup built into the executive order; it is up to Congress to hold the agencies accountable,” she said.
Also testifying to the Government Reform subcommittee were senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who each discussed the importance of strengthening open government laws.
“We need real and meaningful consequences for failure to comply,” Cornyn told the representatives.
Dan Metcalfe of the Department of Justice’s Office of Information and Privacy agreed with many of the points raised, but defended the executive order, saying that it “elevated the subject of FOIA in general and has drawn more attention, higher attention and a higher level of accountability” to the process. He noted the extensive training his office provides to agency FOIA officers but agreed that congressional oversight would help the process.
Linda Koontz of the Government Accountability Office also spoke about the initial results of a recent study showing the often extreme delays in the FOIA process.