Crunch Time for FOIA Reform in Congress

Advocates press for vote in House as recess nears

AP

Transparency advocates and lawmakers are pressing the House to also vote on a bill to reform the Freedom of Information Act before Congress goes into recess at the end of the week.

The Senate unanimously passed the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014 Monday night, leaving the House to take up the bill in the few days remaining in this session of Congress.

In a bit of eleventh-hour drama, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D., W.V.) placed a hold on the bill because of concerns from federal agencies, but after an outpouring of outrage from transparency and watchdog groups, he lifted the hold and allowed the bill to be passed.

The bill unanimously passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in November and would be the first major reform of the FOIA since 2007. Among other provisions, the legislation would codify President Obama’s requirement for federal agencies to act with a "presumption of openness" and weaken agencies’ leeway to withhold documents more than 25 years old.

More than 70 transparency groups and government watchdog organizations have thrown their weight behind the bill, as have FOIA advocates in Congress.

"This legislation is all about government transparency," Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), who led the push for the bill in the Senate, said in a statement Wednesday. "If House Republicans want this administration to be more accountable, then they must put it on the suspension calendar without delay. Time is running out, and the House must act without further delay."

Congress will go into the recess on Thursday night and is currently in the midst of complicated negotiations over a $1 trillion spending bill it must pass to keep the government open.

The House unanimously passed a bipartisan FOIA reform bill introduced by Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D., Md.) in February, and the two lawmakers are urging the House to take up a vote on the new bill.

"The FOIA Improvement Act will strengthen FOIA, the cornerstone open government law," Issa and Cummings said in a joint statement.  "The House unanimously passed companion legislation, H.R. 1211, earlier this year. The FOIA Improvement Act is a bipartisan bill that, after last night’s passage by the Senate, deserves to be taken up by the House and sent to the President."