Transparency Delayed

Congress presses for prompt response to Freedom of Information Act requests

February 6, 2013

The two top legislators on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform are demanding to know why federal agencies have failed to improve their transparency regulations.

Fifty-six federal agencies have failed to update their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regulations despite directives from Attorney General Eric Holder, noted Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) and ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D., Md.) in a letter sent this week to the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy (OIP).

"Given OIP's role in in implementing compliance with FOIA, the committee seeks information about a number of issues including what many term as outdated FOIA regulations, exorbitant and possibly illegal fee assessments, FOIA backlogs, the excessive use and abuse of exemptions, and dispute resolution services," Issa and Cummings wrote.

Overall, Issa and Cummings are seeking answers to 23 questions from OIP regarding transparency concerns.

As previously reported by the Washington Free Beacon, the Obama administration’s transparency goals have largely fallen flat, disappointing many journalists and government transparency advocates.

Holder issued a 2009 memorandum instructing agencies to update their FOIA regulations, but the directive went largely ignored and unenforced.

A government-wide audit performed by the National Security Archive in December first revealed the widespread lack of compliance with the Holder memo.

"DOJs own regulations have not been updated since 2003," Issa and Cummings wrote.

The Federal Trade Commission has not updated its FOIA regulations since 1975.

"Additionally, while the Attorney General's 2009 FOIA Memorandum says that ‘an agency should not withhold information simply because it may do so legally,’ it is unclear whether agencies have fully adopted this direction," Issa and Cummings wrote.

"According to the National Security Archive, DOJ, as the government's representative in all FOIA lawsuits, 'cannot point to a single case of agency withholding that it has refused to defend.'"

The number of FOIA lawsuits has risen during the Obama administration.

Delays in responding to FOIA requests across the government also continue to be a problem, the lawmakers said.

The letter noted that the Department of Homeland Security receives 27 percent of all FOIA requests, but it is responsible for more than 50 percent of the more than 83,000 backlogged requests.

President Barack Obama declared on his second day in office: "The Freedom of Information Act, which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open government."

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.