House Passes Issa, Cummings Bill to Improve FOIA Process
Washington, DC (Feb. 25, 2014)—Today, the House of Representatives voted unanimously to pass bipartisan legislation introduced by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, along with Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa and Rep. Mike Quigley, to amend the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to strengthen government openness and accountability.
Under this legislation, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act (H.R. 1211), agencies may withhold information requested under FOIA only if disclosure is prohibited by law or could cause foreseeable harm to an interest protected by one of FOIA’s exemptions. It places the burden on agencies to demonstrate why information may be withheld, instead of on the public to justify release.
The legislation also requires agencies to post online in a publicly accessible format all releasable information requested three or more times; establishes a pilot program for a centralized public FOIA portal to allow requesters to submit and review requests for multiple agencies at a single location; and strengthens the Office of Government Information Services by enhancing its role in providing guidance to agencies and ensuring that agencies notify requesters of their right to use its mediation services.
The bill is widely supported by organizations dedicated to increasing transparency in government. Twenty-seven organizations sent a letter in strong support of the legislation, and a coalition of nine media associations promoting open government policies and practices also sent a letter supporting the bill.
Below are Ranking Member Cummings’ remarks, as prepared for delivery on the House Floor today, and the video of his speech:
“I want to thank Chairman Issa for sponsoring this bill with me. This bill, if enacted, would be a landmark reform of our most important open government law, the Freedom of Information Act.
“This legislation would make significant improvements to the current law, which has not been consistently implemented.
“During the Clinton Administration, Attorney General Janet Reno adopted a policy under which the Department of Justice would defend an agency’s use of a FOIA exemption only when the agency could reasonably foresee that disclosure would harm an interest protected by that exemption.
“In the Bush Administration, Attorney General John Ashcroft reversed this standard and directed the Justice Department to defend agency decisions to withhold records as long as they had a legal basis for doing so.
“President Obama, on his first day in office, directed agencies to implement FOIA with a presumption of openness. Attorney General Holder overturned the Ashcroft standard and reinstated the foreseeable harm standard. The legislation before us today would codify in law this presumption in favor of disclosure no matter who is President.
“Under this bill, an agency would not be allowed to withhold information in response to a FOIA request unless disclosure is prohibited by law or would cause specific identifiable harm to an interest protected by one of FOIA’s exemptions.
“This bill also would create an advisory committee to make recommendations to improve government transparency. The President recently endorsed this idea in the Open Government National Action Plan issued by the Administration in December 2013.
“This legislation also would create a pilot project to encourage participation in a centralized FOIA portal. A centralized portal, such as “FOIAonline” that is run by EPA, allows requesters to use one website to file requests to multiple agencies.
“The bill also would strengthen the Office of Government Information Services by enhancing its role in providing guidance to agencies and ensuring that agencies notify requesters of their right to use its mediation services. The bill would strengthen the independence of this office by allowing it to send testimony and reports directly to Congress without approval from the Office of Management and Budget.
“I urge every member of this body to support open government by voting for this important legislation.”