FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT AMENDMENTS OF 2007
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Mr. UDALL of Colorado. Mr. Speaker, I strongly support this bill, which will increase the transparency and accountability of the Federal Government by making a number of long-overdue revisions to the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
The bill will reemphasize that disclosure is to be the rule, secrecy the exception. It will help people seeking documents to get timely responses, and improve transparency in agency compliance. It will reduce the need for people seeking documents to go to court, and provide accountability for agency decisions on whether to release requested information.
Mr. Speaker, the enactment of FOIA in 1966 was a watershed. It established as fundamental policy the principle that information within the government's control should be available and established a presumptive right for the public to obtain identifiable, existing records of Federal agencies. Anyone can use FOIA to request access to Government information. Requesters do not have to show a need or reason for seeking information, and the burden of proof for withholding requested material rests with the department or agency that seeks to deny the request. Agencies may deny access only to records, or portions of records, that fall within certain specific categories.
FOIA has been used effectively by journalists, public interest organizations, corporations, and individuals to access Government information. But the process could be better--because of delays and backlogs, requesters often have found it hard to learn about the status of their requests, and a recent Supreme Court decision has hampered requesters' ability to litigate their claims.
H.R. 1309 would address these and other concerns about the implementation of FOIA. It is a modest measure, but an important one that deserves the approval of the House.
That's especially true because, as the Rocky Mountain News noted in a recent editorial, ``The Bush administration may have been the most openly contemptuous of FOIA's mission since the act first passed. ..... President Bush will leave office in 2009, but it's not enough to trust that future administrations will abide by the promise of openness that FOIA represents. The law needs specific measures to ensure accountability, and the amendments within H.R. 1309 mark a large stride forward.'
For the information of our colleagues, I attach the complete text of that editorial:
[From the Rocky Mountain News, Mar. 13, 2007]
Open Records Upgrade
CONGRESS HAS CHANCE TO IMPROVE CRITICAL LAW
We welcome bipartisan efforts in Congress to beef up the Freedom of Information Act--the four-decade-old law that affords citizens access to the inner workings of the executive branch.
FOIA could certainly stand a little love, as open Government has been attacked many times since Lyndon Johnson signed the act into law July 4, 1966.
The revisions to FOIA in H.R. 1309, which could come before the full House as early as today, would both shine more light on the nooks and crannies of federal bureaucracies and force agencies to better respect the spirit of the law.
Here are a few of the improvements:
The Government would have to act on FOIA requests more quickly. Agencies that did not respond to a request within 20 business days would forfeit any copying and research fees; agencies are now supposed to respond within that period, but there are no penalties.
Federal departments would have to set up FOIA hotlines and individual tracking numbers so that people and organizations that file FOIA requests can easily follow the process.
Citizen journalists and freelancers would gain new credibility. An agency could no longer summarily deny FOIA requests from journalists who are not employed or under contract with established media organizations or watchdog groups. Such requests from unaffiliated individuals can now be rejected.
The amended law would force agencies to consider any request to disseminate information to a broad audience as legitimate, particularly if the party making the request has any record of publication (including bloggers).
The Government would have to reimburse the legal fees of more parties that sue under FOIA. Currently, there's only one way a party that has filed suit to enforce a FOIA request can get repaid: The Government has to lose in court. The amendments would force agencies to repay attorney fees if the government turns over records before a final ruling is issued. This would prevent agencies from sticking media groups with attorney fees by surrendering records just before a judge rules.
The Bush administration may have been the most openly contemptuous of FOIA's mission since the act first passed. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft urged Federal agencies to fight FOIA requests and not presume that the public has a right to know what goes on inside the executive branch. The administration also placed gratuitous limits on requests to the Department of Homeland Security.
President Bush will leave office in 2009, but it's not enough to trust that future administrations will abide by the promise of openness that FOIA represents. The law needs specific measures to ensure accountability, and the amendments within H.R. 1309 mark a large stride forward.
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