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Oversight Committee Passes Bipartisan FOIA Reform Legislation

Mar 25, 2015
Press Release

Oversight Committee Passes Bipartisan FOIA Reform Legislation

 

Washington D.C. (March 25, 2015)—Today, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform unanimously passed H.R. 653, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act, 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 will strengthen one of our most critical open government laws by bringing greater sunlight to federal agency actions,” said Cummings.  “There should be a presumption of openness in this country, and agencies should have to justify their actions when they want to withhold information from the American people.”

“Transparency is not a partisan issue,” said Issa. “It is about good governance and should apply to Democrats and Republicans alike. And the distrust many Americans feel for their government demands a solution. To that end, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act creates a presumption of openness -- assuming, by default, that Americans have a right to the information they’re requesting. The bill would also simplify the FOIA request process, creating a single web portal through which Americans would be able to submit their requests. I am pleased to see this vital reform pass out of Committee and look forward to its ultimate passage.”

Last Congress, the FOIA Act passed the House with a unanimous and bipartisan vote of 410 to zero. The legislation is supported by dozens of open government groups, including The Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media associations that promotes ways to improve FOIA.

The FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2015

Establishes Presumption of Openness

The bill would require agencies to process FOIA requests with a presumption of openness.  Under this Act, an agency could only withhold information if the agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would cause specific identifiable harm.  The bill places the burden on the agency to demonstrate why information may be withheld, instead of on the public to justify release.

Requires Agencies To Post Frequently Requested Information

Agencies would be required to post all releasable information requested three or more times online in a publicly accessible format.  Agencies would also have to review their systems of records and post releasable information online if it is likely to be in the public interest. 

Agency annual FOIA reports would be required to include how many records it made available proactively.  All raw data in agency FOIA reports would also be made available online in an accessible and fully useable format.

Imposes a 25 Year Sunset on Applications of FOIA’s Exemption 5

The bill imposes a 25 year sunset on an agency’s use of the “deliberative process” exemption under FOIA. 

Establishes Single Portal for FOIA Requesters

The FOIA Act will require the operation of a consolidated online request portal that allows a member of the public to submit a request for records from a single website.

Strengthens the FOIA Ombudsman (Office of Government Information Services)

The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) would have increased independence under the FOIA Act which would authorize OGIS to report directly to Congress without interagency review. 

Strengthens Oversight and Review of FOIA Compliance

OGIS and the agency Chief FOIA Officers would be responsible for regularly reviewing FOIA compliance.  These reviews shall include review of fee assessment and waivers, backlogs, overuse of exemptions, and other problems with FOIA.  Agencies will also be responsible for reporting more information on FOIA including the number of times it posted records proactively, engaged in dispute resolution, and invoked law enforcement exclusions.

Strengthens Dispute Resolution

The FOIA Act would allow requesters to have 90 days to file an appeal under FOIA (previously undefined), as well as their right to seek mediation services and dispute resolution from both OGIS and the agency’s FOIA liaison.  Agencies will also have to report the number of times it engaged in dispute resolution and update their regulations to provide direction to agencies on mediation services. 

Mandates FOIA Regulations Updates

Each agency shall update its FOIA regulations within 180 days of enactment.  The regulations would be required to include procedures on dispute resolution and working with OGIS.  OGIS would be required to review whether agencies comply with this requirement and if agencies fail to update their regulations they will have to report to Congress on their failure to do so and will be subject to a review of their FOIA compliance by their Office of Inspector General. 

Establishes Chief FOIA Officer Council

A Chief FOIA Officer Council, modeled after the CIO Council, would be established by the FOIA Act which would include all Chief FOIA Officers.

114th Congress