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House panel approves FOIA reform bill

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Sep. 29, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Sep. 29, 2006


House panel approves FOIA reform bill

  • Legislation passed by a House subcommittee would increase monitoring and create punishment for federal agencies that take too long to respond to requests.

Sep. 29, 2006  ·   A House subcommittee on Wednesday approved a proposed overhaul of the Freedom of Information Act that would speed replies to information requests and increase accountability for government officials who delay the process of records production.

The bill (H.R. 867) approved by a House Government Reform subcommittee is identical to one passed last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee (S. 394), but it appears unlikely Congress will pass the bill this year.

The subcommittee also approved an amendment by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) that would revoke two Bush administration memos that hampered the release of information under FOIA.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft wrote that if agencies had a “sound legal basis” for withholding information, the Justice Department would support them. In 2002, former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card encouraged government officials to withhold sensitive information for national security reasons, even when the FOIA national security exemption didn’t apply.

Reforms to FOIA are needed because court decisions and congressional action have chipped away at the act’s effectiveness since it was made law in 1966, said Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups — including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press — that promotes open-government policies.

“Now it’s very difficult to use FOIA to get documents in a timely matter,” Blum said.

The proposed law would close loopholes such as a provision requiring government agencies to respond to FOIA requests within 20 days of receiving them.

Some agencies have taken that to mean they can simply send a meaningless acknowledgement of the request, Blum said. The new law would require a “substantial” response within 20 days. If an agency did not comply, it would forfeit the right to withhold documents under certain FOIA exemptions.

The bill also makes it less likely that FOIA requestors would have to pay hefty legal costs to obtain documents. The proposal allows for people to collect reasonable attorney’s fees from the government and creates a FOIA ombudsman who would review agencies’ compliance with FOIA and provide alternatives to litigation.

The bill now must be voted on by the House Government Reform committee and the full Senate. But the chances that will happen this year are slim as legislators aim to end the session this week because of the upcoming midterm elections.

Even if the bill doesn’t pass this year, Blum said, the action by the two panels means it will carry momentum for next year.

“It does set the marker and says members of Congress are serious about it,” he said.

(The Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act of 2005)RG

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