Senate Judiciary approves FOIA reform

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved a bill to update the Freedom of Information Act. 

The legislation, meant to tweak the law that governs the public's access to government documents, is sponsored by Sens. Patrick LeahyPatrick LeahyOvernight Finance: McConnell offers 'clean' funding bill | Dems pan proposal | Flint aid, internet measure not included | More heat for Wells Fargo | New concerns on investor visas Dem senator won't back spending bill without visa reforms Top GOP chairmen investigating foreign visa program MORE (D-Vt.) and John CornynJohn CornynThis week: Shutdown deadline looms over Congress Saudi skeptics gain strength in Congress Why Cruz flipped on Trump MORE (R-Texas). 

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It has broad support in the civil liberties and open government community. In October, 50 groups called on President Obama to publicly back the bill. 

One of the largest changes requires agencies to adopt a policy that presumes disclosure and would ban denials of records based on technicalities. Obama directed agencies to adopt this policy when he first came into office, but the legislation would seek to make it permanent, and not subject to future presidents' discretion.

"By codifying the 'presumption of openness' into law, agencies won’t be able to hide behind an exemption for fear of embarrassment," Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking Republican on the committee, said.

He recently signed his name to the bill. 

The legislation would also make an update to an exemption that allows the government to withhold documents related to an agency's deliberative process. It would limit that exemption to documents less than 25 years old. 

One section of the initial bill was taken out during negotiations. The provision would have created a balancing test that would weigh the importance of disclosure against a federal agency's interest in protecting documents that deal with the government's deliberative process. 

The Sunlight Foundation, a supporter, called the removal a "disappointment" but said it is still an improvement. 

The bill would also make more documents available online and would expand a program that requires agencies to post records regularly used by the public. It would also clarify that individuals cannot be charged for information that was handed over late.

"The FOIA Improvement Act sets limits on the ability of agencies to stonewall requesters, which is why the Senate Judiciary’s approval is a move in the right direction for all who have an interest in a more transparent federal government,” said Dan Epstein, executive director of Cause of Action.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has pushed for the bill and said it is hopeful it can pass the full Senate by the end of the year. 

"So this 'lame duck’ Congress may not be so lame after all — at least when it comes to increasing government transparency," ACLU legislative counsel Gabe Rothman wrote in a blog post ahead of the vote.