Progress on fixing FOIA

Three cheers for the U.S. House of Representatives, which has approved the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2015 (H.R. 653), which will improve the federal Freedom of Information Act.

This legislation helps journalists and other citizens better access their government, and today’s vote proves that Congress can work together to make government more transparent and accountable.

After the experience with the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014, which passed the House overwhelmingly, squeaked through the Senate, then foundered back in the House, the passage of H.R. 653 is significant.

Congress doesn’t approve FOIA fixes very often, so getting this legislation through the Senate and signed into law would be a big win for transparency and helping the American people obtain the information they are entitled to see.

A big hat tip to the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a media coalition of which SPJ is a member. SGI has worked to increase government transparency for more than 10 years. This year’s target is to pass legislation to “Fix FOIA by 50.” July 4, 2016, will mark the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s signing FOIA into law. SGI’s campaign has been using the hashtag #FixFOIAby50.

H.R. 653 is something you don’t see on Capitol Hill too often any more – bipartisan legislation. Two Republicans — Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, joined with Democratic Reps. Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Mike Quigley of Illinois to make the bill happen. A salute to all of them. Well done.

H.R. 653 has any number of improvements to the FOIA. Some big ones to note include:

* Codification of the existing “presumption of openness” policy. This has been established by executive order by different presidents. Now it would be in the law.

* A common portal. The Office of Management and Budget is charged with developing a government-wide portal system for submitting and tracking requests.

* Email requests. Agencies would be required to accept requests by email instead of time-consuming snail mail.

* Frequent requests. Agencies would be required to post online any document for which there has been at least three requests.

The House did its part. Here’s hoping the Senate will soon follow the House’s lead so we can celebrate a stronger, improved FOIA.


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