Washington— Congress on Monday sent President Barack Obama legislation making it easier for Americans to obtain government records.
The bipartisan bill would require federal agencies to consider release of government information under a “presumption of openness” as opposed to a presumption the information is secret. Supporters of the shift said it would make it harder for agency officials to block release of government records.
The House approved the bill Monday on a voice vote, three months after the Senate acted.
Obama is expected to sign the measure, which aims to reduce the number of exemptions the government uses to withhold information from the public and news media. It also would create an online portal for individuals to submit a request under the 50-year-old Freedom of Information Act. Such requests currently are handled by separate agencies in different ways.
The legislation was sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont. Leahy said he could “think of no better way to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of FOIA than by passing the FOIA Improvement Act.”
Cornyn said the legislation will “build on what our Founding Fathers recognized hundreds of years ago: that a truly democratic system depends on an informed citizenry to hold their leaders accountable. If the public doesn’t know what government is doing, how can they consent” to actions taken by the government on their behalf?
Members of Congress have long complained that the White House and executive-branch agencies have not been fully transparent in sharing records with lawmakers and the public, while Obama and previous presidents have criticized Congress for exempting itself from the requirements. FOIA does not apply to Congress.
“Problems with FOIA have persisted under both Republican and Democrat administrations, but under President Obama, things have only worsened and his commitment to a ‘new era of openness’ has proven illusory at best,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a frequent Obama critic.
Besides the presumption of openness, the bill also would place a 25-year sunset on the government’s ability to withhold certain documents that demonstrate how the government reaches decisions. Under current law, many documents related to decision-making can be withheld from the public forever.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the House vote caps more than three years’ of effort to reform freedom-of-information laws.
“The Freedom of Information Act was supposed to make government more open, but in recent years, it has become rife with abuse as administrators have made a habit of slow-walking, delaying or outright denying requests for information that should have been made public to begin with,” Issa said.
The newly approved bill should make it harder for “power-hungry government officials to keep information from the American people,” he added.
The Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of nine media groups that includes The Associated Press, applauded the bill’s passage. The group has worked to strengthen open-government policies and practices. Members include the American Society of News Editors, Association of Alternative Newsmedia, National Newspaper Association, Newspaper Association of America, Online News Association, Radio Television Digital News Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Society of Professional Journalists.
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