Senate passes FOIA reform bill

Greg Nash

The Senate on Tuesday unanimously passed a bill to expand the public's access to government records, after a year of delay. 

The Senate's move means both chambers have now passed similar proposals to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Differences will still need to be resolved before the measure makes it to President Obama's desk — potentially forcing the administration's hand on a bill it has previously lobbied against

"If the president receives this bill, he'll sign it," Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick LeahyProtecting the right to counsel in immigration court Dems urge Obama to release info on Russian links to DNC hack Top senators want details on probe of DNC breach MORE (D-Vt.) told The Hill. When pressed on whether he had received assurances, he said, "In my 40 years here, I've never said what the White House has told me."

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The House passed its bill in January, and the Senate moved forward Tuesday after a deal was struck for a few holdout senators to remove their opposition. 

The legislation led by Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP senators to donors: Stick with us regardless of Trump Hopes dim for mental health deal Overnight Finance: Senate punts on Zika funding | House panel clears final spending bill | Biz groups press Treasury on tax rules | Obama trade rep confident Pacific deal passes this year MORE (R-Texas) and Leahy would update the open-records law used by journalists, researchers and the public. Many who have dealt with the process complain about delays and unnecessary redactions from agencies. A House committee recently described the law as "broken" in a report.

The update 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. Obama instructed agencies to adopt a similar model when he entered office, but critics say the government hasn't lived up to that promise.

Under the legislation, agencies would have to point to a specific "foreseeable harm" when withholding documents that would typically be exempt from public release. The legislation would also create a single FOIA request portal for all agencies, limit the amount of time that certain documents are exempt from disclosure and make more documents available online, among other things. 

Lawmakers have tried get the bill passed for the past few years, despite opposition from the Justice Department and a handful of other civil enforcement agencies that have quietly opposed the legislation. 

The House and Senate both approved their respective bills last Congress, but Senate passage came so late that it left no time to merge them. The only solution was to have one chamber pass the other's exact language. But fighting between the chambers, and outside lobbying pressure, caused reform to die at the end of the session.  

The same kind of volleying between chambers is already springing up this time, as Leahy called on the House to take up the Senate bill.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the lead sponsor of the House bill, said the most likely scenario is for the two bills to go to conference. If they are merged, he dared the administration to oppose it. 

"I dare him to veto it," Issa told The Hill. "I dare the most open and transparent president in history to veto it."