House Oversight and Government Reform Committee leaders unveiled a bill Tuesday they say will strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D., Md.), ranking member, released a draft discussion version of the bill, which would create a single online portal for FOIA requests and put the burden on federal agencies to explain withholding of information.
"This bill strengthens FOIA, our most important open government law, and makes clear that the government should operate with a presumption of openness and not one of secrecy," Cummings said.
"Requests through the Freedom of Information Act remain the principal vehicle through which the American people can access information generated by their government," Issa said in a statement. "The draft bill is designed to strengthen transparency by ensuring that legislative and executive action to improve FOIA over the past two decades is fully implemented by federal agencies."
The bill would give added impetus to several transparency directives President Barack Obama issued in 2009, but which many federal agencies have ignored.
Obama called the Freedom of Information Act the "most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open government" on his first day in office and said agencies should operate under a presumption of openness.
Attorney General Eric Holder followed Obama’s statement with a 2009 memo ordering federal agencies to review their FOIA regulations.
However, as reported by the Washington Free Beacon, roughly two-thirds of federal agencies have not followed Holder’s directive and the Justice Department has continued to defend agencies that withhold information from the public.
Issa and Cummings sent a letter in February asking the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy to explain why agencies had not acted on Obama’s 2009 pledge.
The bill would require agencies to process FOIA requests with a presumption of openness and place the burden on them to justify withholding records. It would also require agencies to update their FOIA regulations within 180 days of its enactment.
Patrice McDermott, the executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, said the bill "reflects issues [Issa and Cummings] have been hearing not just from the openness community, but also from the journalists."
"There are substantive procedural problems with DOJ's litigation strategy not working in accord with president’s openness presumption," McDermott said.
The bill would also create a single online portal for FOIA requests. Currently several federal agencies funnel requests through the online portal FOIAonline, but they represent only a small fraction of total agencies.
McDermott said her organization was pleased to see an attempt to codify efforts like the portal and require the hiring of chief FOIA officers at agencies, which future administrations would otherwise not be compelled to continue.
Such efforts could hit a snag when it comes to funding, however.
"As with so much of this stuff, the rubber hits the road with funding," McDermott said. "Unless the person writes the authorizing bill is on the Appropriations Committee and is willing to spend political capital on it, it doesn't move forward. It's something the NGO community has really struggled with."
The announcement came in the midst of Sunshine Week, an annual event highlighting the importance of open and transparent government.