December 14, 2005
President Implements Parts of Smith-Sherman Freedom of Information Act Legislation
Washington, D.C. - Congressman Brad Sherman at the White House on Wednesday commended President Bush for taking steps to improve public access to government records, but he said Congress should enact additional measures to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act.
The president signed an executive order requiring agencies to designate a senior official to oversee compliance with the law that for 40 years has provided an important tool for reporters and citizens to obtain information about the government.
The order also makes agencies establish service centers to streamline handling of requests for documents.
"The president has taken an important first step, but more needs to be done to assure timely access to government records," Sherman said.
The primary Democratic sponsor of legislation with Congressman Lamar Smith, Sherman said Congress should enact key provisions of their bill.
Under the Smith-Sherman Open Government Act of 2005, agencies would have less leeway to avoid a 20-day time limit for determining whether to comply with a request for records. The existing law waives the deadline if an agency encounters unspecified "unusual circumstances." The Smith-Sherman legislation would remove the waiver unless disclosure within the 20-day time limit would endanger national security, divulge personal or proprietary information or would be illegal for other reasons.
Another provision would make agencies in more instances pay legal costs related to efforts to pry open records, such as when courts overturn agency decisions to turn down information requests. The current law makes agencies pay attorney fees when the news media or others who sought government records "substantially prevailed." Under the Smith-Sherman proposal, the definition of those eligible to recoup legal costs would cover any requestor who obtained a "substantial part of requested relief," or caused an agency to change its position on the disclosure of records.