Senate Considers Faster FOIA ActApril 20, 2010 - by Eric Naing
Federal agencies have a mixed record when it comes to processing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in spite of a renewed, government-wide commitment to the law. And now, a move to reduce the amount of time the government takes to process FOIA requests has advanced in the Senate and is getting some high profile and bipartisan support.
The Freedom of Information Act requires government agencies to disclose certain types of unreleased information upon request. The law is an invaluable tool for journalists and citizens who want to keep government accountable. But certain information, such as information dealing with national security or personnel rules, is exempted from the law.
At the start of the Obama administration, Attorney General Eric Holder released a memorandum (PDF) directing government agencies to consider FOIA requests with a “clear presumption of openness.” Since then, the results have been decidedly mixed.
An audit from the National Security Archive at George Washington University (PDF) showed that less than half of the 90 agencies audited took some kind of step toward better FOIA compliance while most failed to demonstrate any action. On top of that, a review by the Associated Press showed that the use of FOIA exemptions by major government agencies increased in 2009 – the first year of the Obama administration.
In light of these findings, Sen. Pat Leahy [D, VT] and Sen. John Cornyn [R, TX] introduced the Faster FOIA Act (S.3111) last month. This bill would create a 16-member commission that would look at delays in processing FOIA requests and outline ways that agencies can better comply with the law.
Leahy stressed that FOIA compliance and open government in general should be nonpartisan issues:
“The Faster FOIA Act will help to address agency FOIA backlogs by establishing a bipartisan Commission to examine the root causes of agency delay. I have said many times that open government is neither a Democratic issue, nor a Republican issue – it is truly an American value and virtue that we all must uphold.”
Thirty-four good government groups, including our friends at the Sunlight Foundation sent a letter (PDF) to Leahy and Cornyn last month in support of the Faster FOIA Act. In the letter, the organizations explain why delays in processing FOIA requests are such a big deal:
In our experience, agency backlogs impose one of the greatest impediments to access under the FOIA and create a disparity across the federal government in the administration of the FOIA. Moreover, while backlogs have presented a longstanding problem in agency implementation of the FOIA, we still do not understand fully the conditions and practices that create those backlogs. Particularly in light of President Obama’s directive to agencies to reduce significant backlogs of outstanding FOIA requests, it is imperative that we identify the root causes of FOIA processing delays.
Last Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to send the bill to Senate floor. It is unknown right now when the full Senate will act on it.