Tuesday, January 12, 2016

House OKs Freedom of Information Act reform bill

The House on Monday passed bipartisan legislation that "would limit exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that now allow federal agencies to hold back information," Megan R. Wilson and Cristina Marcos report for The Hill. "The bill would also create a single online portal for people to make FOIA requests and require agencies to publicly post frequently requested records online."

The bill would "reform how agencies can redact some information using Exemption 5, which is often derisively referred to as the 'withhold because you can' statute," Wilson and Marcos write. "In practice, it is supposed to apply to 'interagency or intra-agency communication,' such as draft documents. The legislation, however, requires agencies to disclose any 'records that embody the working law, effective policy or the final decision of the agency.'"

"It also mirrors the Senate legislation in requiring that Exemption 5 cannot be used on any information older than 25 years," Wilson and Marcos write. "The measure would codify nonbinding directions from the Obama administration and the Justice Department on how to fulfill document requests with a 'presumption of openness,' in addition to improving public digital access to records released through FOIA and making oversight of the process more independent . . . Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday would not say whether the Senate’s version of the legislation would be placed on the calendar."

The Society of Professional Journalists applauded the move. SPJ National President Paul Fletcher said in a statement: "This legislation helps journalists and other citizens better access their government, and today’s vote proves that Congress can work together to make government more transparent and accountable. Congress doesn’t approve FOIA fixes very often, so getting this legislation through the Senate and signed into law would be a big win for transparency and helping the American people obtain the information they are entitled to see.”

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