By Bret Thompson, Public Citizen
Public Citizen has repeatedly called on Congress to pass legislation to reform and improve the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). During Sunshine Week in March, we praised the Senate for approving the FOIA Improvement Act (S. 337), and participated actively with a coalition of partner organizations in the #50DaysOfFOIA campaign urging Congress to finalize FOIA reforms before the law’s 50th birthday on July 4 th.
On June 13th our efforts paid off, as the House passed S.337, the same version of FOIA reform legislation already approved by the Senate, and sent it off to the President, who has already signaled his intent to sign the bill into law.
The landmark Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), enacted by Congress in 1966, is an essential key to unlocking our democracy. FOIA enables Americans to monitor what the government is up to and hold the government accountable for its actions, by giving the public an enforceable right to access government records, subject to nine narrow exemptions. Unfortunately, the government’s implementation of the law has had some real issues, including overuse of exemptions, most notably exemption 5 for internal agency deliberations.
The FOIA Improvement Act (S. 337) makes important changes to FOIA, including prohibiting the government from relying on exemption 5 to deny a FOIA requester records of internal agency deliberations created 25 years or more before the request was made. The FOIA Improvement Act also codifies the “presumption of openness” policy stated by President Obama on his first day in office. This will require the government to release information unless the agency anticipates that disclosure would harm an interest protected by a FOIA exemption. Other improvements to the law will enhance the government’s proactive disclosure of frequently requested records, make it easier for a requester to submit a FOIA request online, limit the circumstances under which an agency can charge fees for a request when it misses the statutory deadlines for responding to that request, and expand the role of the government’s FOIA ombudsman, the Office of Government Information Services.
We look forward to the president signing this significant legislation and locking in place these new tools for increasing transparency.