FOIA bill heads to Obama’s desk

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After years of bipartisan work, a bill passed Tuesday by the U.S. House of Representatives would raise the bar for agencies seeking to deny Freedom of Information Act requests.

The bill already passed the Senate in March and now heads to the desk of President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it into law.

The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, S337, “places the burden on agencies to justify withholding information, instead of on the requester to justify release,” according to a press release from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Though the Obama administration has released several memos on FOIA, half of federal agencies have not updated their regulations to correspond with them, according to the release. This bill would also require those agencies to get up to speed.

“We’re thrilled to get it passed,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, an online open government advocacy group. “It’s been a three-year fight to get this far.”

The bill also strengthens the Office of Government Information Services, which acts as a FOIA ombudsman, Schuman said. The bill requires an annual report to Congress from the office, which doesn’t have to consult any other agency. 

“Now they have regular opportunities by which they can share their opinions directly with Congress,” Schuman said.

The Office of Management and Budget is also directed in the bill to create a website for people to submit FOIA requests.

“Passing bipartisan FOIA legislation is a major milestone and big step forward in fixing a broken process,” said committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, in the statement. “This bill will help make government more transparent and accountable to the public.”

The bill will also limit the use of a FOIA exemption called the “deliberative process privilege,” where agencies can exclude information leading up to decision-making. With this bill, the exemption would only apply to documents or communications less than 25-years-old.

This exemption was created with the intent of promoting open and frank discussion within government before decisions are made, but Schuman said these concerns lessen over time.

“The purpose of the privilege is, you don’t want to chill people’s conversations” through the threat of later disclosure, Schuman said. “But the chilling effect doesn’t last forever.”

Schuman told Fedscoop that even with the bill’s passage, more work needs to be done on government transparency. 

“There’s a lot of good things that were left on the table,” he said. But he added that it was important to pass reforms before the presidency changes.

“The Freedom of Information Act was supposed to make government more open, but in recent years, it has become ripe with abuse… The bill effectively cripples the ability of federal bureaucrats and power hungry government officials to keep information from the American people,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif, in a statement.

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