House Committee lambastes administration over FOIA issues

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The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform released a report Monday slamming the way federal agencies fulfill their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act, saying the system is broken beyond repair.

The staff report condemns the executive branch for using FOIA as a tool to stifle the release of information that should be available for public consumption, pointing to examples that the committee says range from the ineptitude of FOIA caseworkers to policies put in place to discourage people from filing requests.

“The FOIA process is broken,” the report reads. “Unnecessary complications, misapplication of the law, and extensive delays are common occurrences.”

The committee held two hearings and solicited the public for comments about the FOIA process last year to craft the report. Among the findings were a slate of FCC emails that had information redacted under privacy laws that did not apply to the emails content, a mistakenly unredacted passage from the National Archives and Records Administration FOIA office that said employees “live in constant fear of the White House” and a request that remained unanswered even as the requester “left the organization to pursue a graduate degree, worked for years with another organization, and return to the original organization” before receiving an initial response.

“Structural reform is necessary to ensure the FOIA tool works as intended,” the report concludes. “Legislation is needed to clarify existing requirements and impose additional requirements that will ensure agencies to comply with legal obligations to make government public.”

That legislation could come in the form of the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2015, which passed the House Monday. The bill would limit exemptions, force agencies to create an online FOIA portal, strengthen the Office of Government Information Services (the FOIA ombudsman) and mandate Inspector General reviews of FOIA processing.

“The American people deserve to know what their government is doing and how it is spending their money,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the bill’s author. “FOIA continues to be one of the most effective tools for Americans to access public information. I look forward to working with our Senate counterparts to swiftly send a final bill to the President’s desk.”

At the White House press briefing Monday afternoon, spokesman Josh Earnest said the Obama administration has “made improvements in a way that have led people to have a better understanding of exactly what is happening in their government and making their government more transparent.”

He also stated that in fiscal year 2014, the administration answered 647,142 requests, with 91 percent of requests receiving some or all of the information they requested.

“That number of letters does not get responded to unless you’re serious about running the most transparent government in history,” Earnest said.  

He also said that Congress should include itself its in own FOIA laws if it believes in being transparent.

“Congress is the one writing the rules and right now the rules are written in such a way that they don’t have to play by them,” he said. “The basis of this legislation is that the people have a right to know more about what is happening inside their government. I don’t understand why Congress doesn’t think the American people don’t have a right to understand exactly what is happening in Congress.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., called the report “erroneous” and “highly partisan,” adding that the committee never voted on it before it’s released.

“Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress starved agencies of resources as FOIA requests increased to record levels, and then they act surprised that there are backlogs,” Cummings, the committee’s ranking member, said in a release. “There is no doubt that the FOIA process can and must be improved, which is why I have worked tirelessly on bipartisan legislation that the House will vote on today.”

One particular FOIA statute that has faced recent scrutiny is an FBI condition in which requesting parties are to submit a copy of their government-issued photo ID with requests. Open government advocates, including Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., say the requirement is not grounded in law

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