House poised to approve FOIA reform bill

The House is slated to approve a bill Monday evening that could expand the public’s access to government records. 

Similar legislation to update the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has gotten close to the president’s desk in recent years, even though some federal agencies and the banking industry have raised concerns about access to sensitive financial information.  

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The current proposal, sponsored by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), is expected to pass the House easily. Journalists and other outside groups have long expressed frustration about the current process.

The most high-profile portion of the legislation would codify a so-called presumption of openness, which requires federal agencies and other parts of the government to adopt a policy that leans toward the public release of documents. 

Agencies would have to point to a specific identifiable harm when withholding documents unless disclosing them is specifically barred by law. 

President Obama instructed agencies to adopt this model when he first entered office. But critics say agencies have not lived up to that promise.  

“On innumerable occasions, agencies have refused to produce documents or intentionally extended the timeline for document production to stymie a request for information,” according to a House Oversight Committee report released Monday. 

“In many cases, American citizens find themselves frustrated by the total lack of response from the government they are asked to trust.”

Republicans on the committee held a series of hearings last year to highlight frustrations with agencies over open records requests, which can face long delays or unjustified denials. Cummings took issue with many details in the GOP-led report, but noted that the FOIA process “can and must be improved.”

The legislation would do a number of other things, including creating a single FOIA request portal for all agencies and limiting the amount of time that certain documents are exempt from disclosure. The bill would also make more documents available online. 

In a version of the bill passed through the committee process last year, a provision was added that would require the government to pay the legal fees of anyone who wins a court challenge against it for withholding documents. Current law gives the courts discretion to award legal fees but does not require it.

Similar versions of FOIA reform passed both chambers last Congress. Delays kept the Senate from passing legislation until shortly before the term ended, and disagreements over the House and Senate bills prevented reform from reaching the president's desk. 

House and Senate committees worked quickly last year to advance a bill early in the new Congress, but neither proposal had seen a floor vote until now. The White House has been largely silent on the legislation. 

“We’ll obviously take a close look at this legislation,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday, arguing the administration has a “pretty strong record” on the subject. 

He said Congress should strengthen the legislation by applying open records laws to itself. Congress is exempt from FOIA requests.

—updated 2:40 p.m.