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House Passes Bipartisan FOIA Reform Legislation

Jan 12, 2016
Press Release

House Passes Bipartisan FOIA Reform Legislation

Washington D.C. (Jan. 11, 2016)—Today, the House of Representatives passed bipartisan legislation, H.R. 653, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2015, which was introduced by Ranking Member Elijah E. Cummings and Rep. Darrell Issa, to strengthen our nation’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws.  The Act would establish a presumption of openness for releasing information while creating electronic accessibility for frequently released information.  The Issa-Cummings bill would also strengthen oversight and review of FOIA compliance, as well as dispute resolution from the Office of Government Information Services.

“This bipartisan legislation finally puts into law the presumption of openness that should be the hallmark of the Freedom of Information Act, regardless of who occupies the White House,” Cummings said. “The bill would also take other significant steps to improve FOIA, such as improving the independence of the Office of Government Information Services and making it easier for members of the public to access information. I urge the Senate to take up this bill without delay and to send it to the President for his signature.”

Last Congress, the FOIA Act passed the House with a unanimous and bipartisan vote. The legislation is widely supported by dozens of open government groups, including The Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media associations that promotes ways to improve FOIA.

Below are Ranking Member Cummings’ remarks, as prepared for delivery, on the House Floor today, and the video of his speech:

 

 

Statement of Ranking Member Elijah E. Cummings

H.R. 653, FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act

January 11, 2016

 

Mr. Speaker, I rise in strong support of H.R. 653, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act.

I want to start by thanking Representative Darrell Issa for working with me on this legislation.  We first introduced the FOIA Act in March 2013. 

The bill before us today is the product of three years of work, feedback, negotiation, and perseverance. 

I also want to thank the Chairman of the Oversight Committee, Jason Chaffetz, for his work on this bill and his strong support for bringing it to the House floor today. 

Open government advocates, journalists, editorial boards, and every day citizens who support this bill also deserve a tremendous amount of gratitude.

The FOIA Act would strengthen the cornerstone of our open government laws, the Freedom of Information Act. 

This legislation builds on the historic work of the Obama Administration, which I believe will go down in history as the most transparent administration to date.

The bill would codify the presumption of openness standard that President Obama put in place in a memo on his first day in office. 

The bill would require agencies to identify a specific identifiable harm to an interest protected by the exemption unless disclosure is prohibited by law. 

This provision would NOT require agencies to disclose classified information.  It would NOT require agencies to disclose anything they are prohibited from disclosing by law.  And it would not remove any of FOIA’s existing nine exemptions.

It would, however, put the burden on agencies to justify keeping government information secret.

The bill would also put a 25-year sunset on exemption 5 of FOIA—the deliberative process exemption—and limit the scope of records that agencies could withhold under that exemption. 

It would modernize FOIA by requiring the Office of Management and Budget to create a central portal to allow FOIA requests to any agency through one website. 

The Office of Government Information Services, the FOIA Ombudsman created by Congress in 2007, would become more independent under this bill because that office would be allowed to submit testimony and reports directly to Congress without going through political review.

This bill is coming to the floor with an amendment that makes a number of changes, many of them proposed by Chairman Chaffetz. 

Some of these additions include requiring agencies to provide each FOIA requester with a contact name and information for an agency employee who can provide information on the status of the request.       

Our bill has widespread support.  A coalition of 47 open government groups sent a letter in support of this bill on February 5, 2015, that said this:

Congress must act this year to ensure that FOIA stays current with people’s need to access government information and resilient in the face of attempts to subvert that access.

Numerous editorial boards have written urging Congress to pass FOIA reform legislation. A New York Times editorial in February 2015 said “this is a rare chance to log a significant bipartisan accomplishment in the public interest.” 

A USA Today editorial in March 2015 called for enactment of this bill’s reforms.  A Los Angeles Times editorial said that this legislation and a similar bill in the Senate “deserves to be passed.”

There is a movement called “Fix FOIA by 50.”  That movement is aimed at getting H.R. 653 enacted before the 50th anniversary of FOIA in July of this year.  An online clearinghouse for the movement includes stories from journalists about why FOIA is critical to their work and why this legislation must be enacted.

It is important to note that even with enactment of this legislation, the work of Congress must continue.  Agency FOIA staff are being asked to do more than ever before with fewer resources.

From 2009 to 2014, the overall number of FOIA requests submitted to federal agencies increased by 28%, with new records set in each of the past four years in a row.

The total number of FOIA personnel, however, decreased by about 4%.  Congress must give these agencies more resources.

I urge my colleagues to vote for transparency and for the American people by voting yes on this legislation. 

I reserve the balance of my time.

114th Congress