Obama signs bill to expand access to federal records

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President Obama on Thursday signed into law a bill to strengthen the government’s open records laws. 

The legislation to update the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) made it over the finish line after years of delays, which were partly blamed on behind-the-scenes opposition in the administration. 

{mosads}The changes would put the force of law into a 2009 Obama directive urging agencies to err on the side of disclosure when handling open records requests.

The White House called the legislation “critical” and said it will institutionalize “principles and actions that the president has promoted since his first full day in office.” 

The administration will issue new FOIA guidance later this year, and the White House committed to having a centralized request portal by next year. The White House said a group of FOIA advisers will meet next month to discuss the lingering challenges to the process. 

Journalists, researchers and Congress have all criticized the current system, which often results in agencies delaying requests for years and many times requires litigation to finally dislodge the federal records.  

The new law codifies a so-called presumption of openness, which critics say executive agencies have not lived up to despite Obama’s directive. Under the new provisions, agencies would have to point to a specific “foreseeable harm” when withholding documents.

The legislation will also limit the government’s withholding of documents related to the deliberative process — an exemption that is widely used and some say abused — if the records are more than 25 years old. The legislation would also create a single FOIA request portal for all agencies, make more documents available online and give more authority to the government’s FOIA ombudsman.

The legislation is the first major overhaul of the 1966 law in more than a decade, and it has been a long time coming. 

Both chambers approved versions of the bill during the last Congress but time ran out before lawmakers could merge the two proposals. 

The Senate approved its version in March, and the House approved it by voice vote earlier this month. Backers of reform have applauded its passage but noted that enough was left on the cutting room floor for “a new bill to start again.”

Lead sponsor Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the signing was an “important step forward,” and Democratic co-sponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) said the law would bring “FOIA into the digital age.”

It won bipartisan support throughout the debate but Republicans and Democrats used starkly different rhetoric to advance it. Democrats said the bill would build on reforms pushed by Obama, but Republicans said it was necessary because the administration had reneged on its early transparency promises. 

Throughout the debate, the legislation received pushback from agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department. 

In a 2014 Justice Department memo released earlier this year, the agency said the reforms would increase costs and cause delays in processing open records requests, arguing it is not necessary. 

The Senate made minor changes to narrow parts of the bill in order to win over senators who were sympathetic to the Justice Department’s arguments. 


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