50 groups push Obama on FOIA legislation

A coalition of 50 groups urging more government transparency called on President Obama to publicly support legislation that would reform the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process. 

The conglomerate — including government watchdogs, civil liberties groups and media advocacy groups — wants a commitment that a number of reforms will remain in place after the president leaves office. 

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"Only statutory reform and your public commitment to that reform will ensure the commitments you have made last beyond your presidency," the coalition said in a letter sent Wednesday, adding that legislation would "breathe new life into your commitments."

All of the reforms outlined are included in the FOIA Improvement Act sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). 

Early in Obama's presidency, he directed agencies to adopt a policy that favored disclosure unless the information fell under an exemption or could cause harm to the government. The legislation would codify that order.

"Past administrations have reversed this presumption, yielding directives like that issued by former Attorney General John Ashcroft that set the default on withholding, with the promise the Department of Justice would vigorously defend agencies that refused to comply with FOIA requests," according to the letter.

It would also clarify that individuals cannot be charged for information if it is handed over after a certain deadline and would expand the role of the Office of Government Information Service to help streamline the process. 

The legislation would also create a balancing test that would weigh the importance of disclosure against the agencies' interest in protecting documents that deal with the government's deliberative process. 

"Unfortunately, despite the strong FOIA policies you have mandated, the deliberative process privilege continues to be significantly overused, disserving the very interests your memorandum commits to advance," the group said. 

The letter was signed by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the Association of American Publishers and the Society of Professional Journalists.