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President's budget plan deletes FOIA ombudsman

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  1. Freedom of Information
The White House has declared war on the new Office of Government Information Services -- popularly known as the office…

The White House has declared war on the new Office of Government Information Services — popularly known as the office of the "ombudsman" — that was created through the Freedom of Information Act reform bill signed into law by President Bush on Dec. 31.

In releasing his proposed budget for FY09, the president conspicuously thwarted congressional intent by attempting to not only move OGIS’ statutorily-mandated functions to the Department of Justice — but to delete the new office altogether.

The provision reads, "The Department of Justice shall carry out the responsibilities of the office established in 5 U.S.C. 552(h), from amounts made available in the Department of Justice appropriation for ‘General Administration Salaries and Expenses.’ In addition, the subsection (h) of section 552 of title 5, United States Code, is hereby repealed, and subsections (i) through (l) are redesignated as (h) through (k)."

In a statement read on the Senate floor on Jan. 23, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., warned the administration to resist messing with OGIS, and was joined by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tx., in further bringing up what was then seemingly just a rumor to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who declined to respond during a recent Judiciary Committee hearing. 

As one of the key and much anticipated provisions in the FOIA reform bill, the office of the federal ombudsman is intended to help mediate disputes between requesters and agencies while also helping to develop new FOIA policy as problems develop, among other duties.

But the rumor is a rumor no more. President Bush has reacted to Sen. Leahy’s proverbial warning shot by steering the ship full speed ahead. With separation of powers issues clearly at stake, Congress now gets the next move, and given both Leahy and Cornyn’s adamancy on the issue, we can expect fireworks.