Cornyn-Leahy updated FOIA bill expected to become law

By Todd J. Gillman
The Dallas Morning News
Originally published June 14, 2016

WASHINGTON – The Freedom of Information Act turns 50 years old next month, and just in time to celebrate, Congress has sent the president an update co-authored by Texas Sen. John Cornyn.

“A healthy democracy requires an open and transparent government, and this bill will help ensure all Americans have better access to their government,” said Cornyn, the deputy Republican leader, who teamed up with Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy on the effort.

The White House said in March that President Barack Obama would sign the bill into law and it cleared the House on  a voice vote Monday. The Senate approved the measure in March.

Leahy boasted that the reforms enjoy broad bipartisan support. “The FOIA Improvement Act ushers in the most significant reforms to FOIA since its enactment 50 years ago,” he said.

The FOIA Improvement Act of 2015 requires federal agencies to operate under a “presumption of openness,” curbing their ability to cite exemptions in order to withhold government information from the public and requiring them to proactively disclose documents that are likely to be of public interest without forcing the public to go through a time-consuming request process.

People will be able to request records from any agency through a single portal, housed at the Office of Management and Budget – ending the need to navigate bureaucracies just to find the right person to direct a request to.

And it creates an office to mediate FOIA disputes.

The bill puts a 25-year time limit on the withholding of records that show how the government reaches decisions, though it keeps an indefinite exemption in place for attorney-client communications, among other things.

The open-government issue crosses party lines. Lawmakers perennially accuse the executive branch, under presidents of both parties, of lacking transparency, and shielding embarrassing or politically damaging information from them, the news media and the public.

House members in both parties wanted to force agencies to accept FOIA requests by email. The White House wanted FOIA expanded to cover Congress; presidents in both parties have accused Congress of hypocrisy in shielding its own records. Neither provision made the cut.

“Now, it is up to the president to fulfill the promise from the White House and sign the bill into law, to ensure that the nation can celebrate FOIA’s 50th anniversary with a stronger and better statute that enhances the public’s ability to hold officials accountable,” said Patrice McDermott of Openthegovernment.org, Politico reported.

The Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of nine media groups that includes The Associated Press, applauded the bill’s passage, AP reported. The group has worked to strengthen open-government policies and practices. Members include the American Society of News Editors, Association of Alternative Newsmedia, National Newspaper Association, Newspaper Association of America, Online News Association, Radio Television Digital News Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Society of Professional Journalists.