Senate Unanimously Approves FOIA Improvement Act
WASHINGTON – The Senate today unanimously approved the FOIA Improvement Act, a bill that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley previously shepherded through the committee process. Grassley is also a cosponsor of the legislation, which requires the government to adopt a “presumption of openness” when processing requests for government records via the Freedom of Information Act.
“The people have a right to know what their government is up to, but we often hear about how federal agencies are either slow to respond to records requests or even look for ways to avoid disclosing public records. Transparency leads to accountability, and we can all agree that more accountability in government is a good thing. The Senate’s sign-off on this bipartisan bill to improve our federal records requests process and bring greater transparency to government is a good step to helping FOIA work again,” Grassley said.
The FOIA Improvement Act clarifies that the government’s default response to FOIA requests should be to provide rather than withhold government information. It places a 25-year sunset on the government’s ability to withhold certain documents that demonstrate how the government reaches decisions, which now can be withheld indefinitely from the public. The bill requires agencies to make publicly available documents that have been requested and released three or more times under FOIA, and empowers the office of Government Information Services to better address FOIA issues through additional independence. The bill also improves technology to improve the information requesting process. It is sponsored by Senators John Cornyn and Patrick Leahy, and is also cosponsored by Senators Coons, Fischer and Tester, as well as Grassley.
Grassley spoke on the Senate floor today just before the Senate passed the FOIA Improvement Act. His remarks follow:
Statement for the Record by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee
Strengthening the Freedom of Information Act
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
Last week, when the Senate passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, I spoke on this floor about the good work that’s getting done in the Senate since Republicans took over. Time and again, we’ve seen both sides of the aisle come to together to find practical solutions to real problems facing the American people.
That’s the way the Senate’s supposed to work. And we need to keep that momentum as we move forward to tackle other critical issues. As Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I continue to be proud of the role we’ve played in getting work done in a bipartisan manner.
Today, on the floor of the Senate, we’re doing that once again. We’re passing another Judiciary Committee bill that carries strong, bipartisan support. We’re passing another Judiciary Committee bill that solves real issues and is supported by folks on all ends of the political spectrum. Don’t get me wrong. Finding agreement on both sides of the aisle is no easy task. Even the most well-intentioned efforts can get bogged in the details. But the fact that we’re here today is a testament to good faith negotiations and a commitment to make government work for the American people. And it’s another indication of what this institution can be and what it was meant to be.
The FOIA Improvement Act makes much-needed improvements to the Freedom of Information Act. And its passage marks a critically important step in the right direction toward fulfilling FOIA’s promise of open government.
I’m proud to be an original co-sponsor of the FOIA Improvement Act. And I want to thank Senator Cornyn and the Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Leahy, for their tireless, bipartisan work to advance this bill through the Senate.
I’m especially proud that the bill’s passage occurs during this year’s Sunshine Week, an annual nationwide initiative highlighting the importance of openness and transparency in government. Every year, Sunshine Week falls around the birthday of James Madison, the father of our Constitution. This isn’t by mistake. Madison’s focus on ensuring that government answers to the people is embodied in the spirit of FOIA. So passing the FOIA Improvement Act this week is a fitting tribute to his commitment to accountable government and the protection of individual liberty. And it’s an opportunity for us all to recommit ourselves to these same higher principles.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of FOIA’s enactment. For over five decades, FOIA has worked to help folks stay in the know about what their government is up to. The Supreme Court said it best when it declared, "The basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed."
To put it simply, FOIA was created to ensure government transparency. And transparency yields accountability.
After all, a government that operates in the dark, without fear of exposure or scrutiny, is one that enables misdeeds by those who govern and fosters distrust among the governed. By peeling back the curtains and allowing the sunlight to shine in, however, FOIA helps fight back against waste, fraud and abuse of the taxpayer’s dollar.
No doubt, FOIA has successfully brought to light numerous stories of government’s shortcomings. Through FOIA, folks have learned about public health and safety concerns, mistreatment of our nation’s veterans, and countless other matters that without FOIA would not have come to light. But despite its successes, a continued culture of government secrecy has served to undermine FOIA’s fundamental promise.
For example, we’ve seen dramatic increases in the number of backlogged FOIA requests. Folks are waiting longer than ever to get a response from agencies. Sometimes, they simply hear nothing back at all. And we’ve seen a record-setting number of FOIA lawsuits filed to challenge an agency’s refusal to disclose information.
More and more, agencies are simply finding ways to avoid their duties under FOIA altogether. They’re failing to proactively disclose information, and they’re abusing exemptions to withhold information that should be released to the public.
Problems with FOIA have persisted under both Republican and Democrat administrations. But under President Obama, things have only worsened. And his commitment to a “new era of openness” has proven illusory at best.
In January, the Des Moines Register published a scathing editorial, outlining the breakdowns in the FOIA system and calling on Congress to tackle the issue head-on. The editorial described that, “In the Obama administration, federal agencies that supposedly work for the people have repeatedly shown themselves to be flat-out unwilling to comply with the most basic requirements of the Freedom of Information Act.” It continued, “At some federal agencies, FOIA requests are simply ignored, despite statutory deadlines for responses. Requesters are often forced to wait months or years for a response, only to be denied access and be told they have just 14 days to file an appeal.” According to the editorial, “Other administrations have engaged in these same practices, but Obama’s penchant for secrecy is almost unparalleled in recent history.”
These are serious allegations. And no doubt, there are serious problems needing fixed.
So, reforms are necessary to address the breakdowns in the FOIA system; to tackle an immense and growing backlog of requests; to modernize the way folks engage in the FOIA process; and to ultimately help change the culture in government toward openness and transparency.
What we’ve accomplished with this bill—in a bipartisan manner—is a strong step in the right direction.
First, the bill makes much-needed improvements to one of the most overused FOIA exemptions. It places a 25-year sunset on the government’s ability to withhold certain documents that demonstrate how the government reaches decisions. Currently, many of these documents can be withheld from the public forever. But this bill helps bring them into the sunlight, providing an important and historical perspective on how our government works.
Second, the bill increases proactive disclosure of information. It requires agencies to make publicly available any documents that have been requested and released three or more times under FOIA. This will go a long way toward easing the backlog of requests.
Third, the bill gives more independence to the Office of Government Information Services. OGIS, as it’s known, acts as the public’s FOIA ombudsman and helps Congress better understand where breakdowns in the FOIA system are occurring. OGIS serves as a key resource for the public and Congress, and this bill strengthens OGIS’s ability to carry out its vital role.
Fourth, through improved technology, the bill makes it easier for folks to submit FOIA requests to the government. It requires the development of a single, consolidated online portal through which folks can file a request. But let me be clear: it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Agencies will still be able to rely on request-processing systems they’ve already built into their operations.
Most importantly, the bill codifies a presumption of openness for agencies to follow when they respond to FOIA requests. Instead of kneejerk secrecy, the presumption of openness tells agencies to make openness and transparency their default setting.
These are all timely and important reforms to the FOIA process. And they will help ensure a more informed citizenry and a more accountable government. So I’m pleased to see this bill move through the Senate.
President Obama has an opportunity to join with Congress in securing some of the most substantive and necessary improvements to FOIA since its enactment. On July 4th of this year, FOIA turns 50. Let’s continue this strong, bipartisan effort to send a bill to the President’s desk before then.
Let’s work together to help fulfill FOIA’s promise.