With Congress planning to leave town once it completes work on federal spending legislation, House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday morning that he has no knowledge of what the plan is for a widely-supported bill strengthening the Freedom of Information Act. And considering that the end of the 113th Congress could be just hours away, if the guy running the House hasn’t heard about any plans to vote on the bill, there probably isn’t one.
The proposal would make a number of changes to the law, the most notable of which is codifying the idea that the government should operate with a presumption of openness, meaning that requests for records and documents should be granted unless there is a compelling reason not to do so.
This would make a matter of law something that President Obama directed his administration to make a matter of policy with one of his early acts after becoming president in 2009.
In a memorandum to all federal agencies, he wrote, “All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.”
The move was, in part, a repudiation of an order issued by Attorney General John Ashcroft in the early days of the George W. Bush administration, which had, in effect, encouraged federal agencies to withhold information from the media and the public if they could find a reason to do so.
WHY THIS MATTERS
Federal agencies routinely flout Freedom of Information Act deadlines, delaying requests for government records for years at a time on flimsy and even specious grounds. The bill that passed the Senate would make that not just a violation of the President’s directive, but a violation of federal law.
The FOIA Improvement Act of 2014 passed the Senate unanimously on Monday, after retiring West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller dropped his hold on the bill and voted for it. Rockefeller had, the previous week, expressed concern about the impact it might have on national security and law enforcement agencies. It remained unclear why he changed his mind, as the bill was apparently not altered.
Whether House leadership is opposed to the FOIA bill, or just pressed for time given the difficulty of passing a giant omnibus appropriations measure, isn’t certain. Similar legislation has already passed the House in this Congress with broad support.
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