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Easier, Cheaper, Faster Government Information

August 14, 2007 - by Donny Shaw

This major tweaking to one of our most important government transparency laws got lost in the whirlwind of legislation that Congress approved just before leaving for recess:

>A bill to make the Freedom of Information Act more responsive has picked up momentum in Congress.
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>Senate legislation — sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and passed by voice vote just before the chamber left for recess — includes provisions to allow anyone who provides information to the public to seek waivers from fees for their requests. Such a provision would expand the fee waiver request from professional news organizations to freelance journalists and bloggers.
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>The bill also tightens the deadlines for agencies to respond to requests within 20 days, but gives agency headquarters, for example, 10 days to pass on information to the agency branch office receiving an FOIA request before the 20-day clock starts ticking. Records held by outside contractors hired by an agency would also be covered by FOIA.
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>The legislation would create an FOIA hotline service and tracking system to follow requests. In addition, an ombudsman agency, an Office of Government Information Services Office within the National Archives, would be established to resolve information request disputes as an alternative to court action.

As introduced, the bill’s main purpose was to make federal agencies more responsive to requests for documents and records. The provision that qualifies bloggers for the much-cheaper “news media” fee was added by Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Patrick Leahy as an amendment. Bloggers, who already hold their own in regards to investigative reporting, deserve to have their playing field leveled. The traditional news media and bloggers are not at odds; the two groups are increasingly looking at each other for insights and leads on stories. So by giving bloggers equal access to information, the Leahy-Kyl amendment is not a threat to the traditional media, but a boost to public knowledge at large.

If Congress is serious about wanting to make and keep government information free, the next time they reform FOIA they will turn the law back on themselves. Currently, Congress is exempt from FOIA and they are not required to make their records and documents publicly available.

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