House Oversight panel approves FOIA reforms

Francis Riviera

The House Oversight Committee on Wednesday approved a bill aimed at increasing the public's access to government documents. 

The changes to the Freedom of Information Act, approved by voice vote, were sponsored by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md). 

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The House unanimously passed a similar bill last Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee reported out its own FOIA reform bill earlier this year.

The bills, similar in many ways, have each been endorsed by nearly 50 public interest groups, and both passed their respective chambers last Congress.

Squabbles between the House and Senate last year prevented reform from hitting the president's desk. Advocates predict the two proposals will eventually have to go to conference.

The Obama administration has remained silent on the issue.  

The House's FOIA Act would mandate a so-called presumption of openness that would require agencies to release records unless they fall under one of the exceptions or could cause a foreseeable harm. 

President Obama's administration instructed agencies to follow this standard when he first came into office, but lawmakers want it written into law. 

The measure would also limit the amount of time that certain documents are exempt from disclosure. One section of FOIA allows for agencies to withhold "inter- and intra-agency documents," and advocates have derisively dubbed it the "withhold it because you want to" exemption. The bills would not allow that exemption to apply to documents older than 25 years. 

The committee also adopted an amendment, sponsored by Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzCongress steamrolls Obama's veto 78 lawmakers vote to sustain Obama veto Congress votes to override Obama for first time MORE (R-Utah), that would narrow the scope of what the government can withhold through this exemption. 

The bill calls for a single online request portal that would let the public, journalists, and other watchdogs request documents from any agency without navigating different websites.

It would require agencies to make more electronic documents available, including publicly posting any document that has been requested three or more times. 

The bill would also give more independence to the Office of Government Information Service, which has been called the FOIA ombudsman and is in charge of recommending changes to the law. 

The committee adopted two other amendments. The first would require all agencies to set up an email address to accept FOIA requests after lawmakers discovered not all agencies currently do this. The second would require the government to pay the legal fees of a plaintiff who successfully challenged the government's withholding of documents in court. Current law gives the courts discretion to award legal fees but does not require it.