Our Editorial: FOIA is broken
We take today’s headline from a House Oversight Committee report on the condition of the federal Freedom of Information Act, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary this summer.
FOIA was intended to give the public unfettered access to information that belongs to the public.
But it isn’t working because government agencies are actively working to subvert the law, the March 2015 report concludes.
“Hundreds of thousands of requests are made each year and hundreds of thousands of requests are backlogged, marked with inappropriate redactions, or otherwise denied,” the committee reported.
The effect on the public’s right to know is chilling.
“Members of the media described their complete abandonment of the FOIA request as a tool because delays and redactions made the request process wholly useless for reporting to the public,” the report found in its hearings.
Among the findings:
■“Agencies create and follow FOIA policies that appear to be designed to deter requesters from pursuing requests and create barriers to accessing records. Waiting for responses can take so long that at one organization an individual made a request, left the organization to pursue a graduate degree, worked for years with another organization, and returned to the original organization before receiving an initial response.”
■“Excessive fees are a persistent problem. For example, the Drug Enforcement Agency charged a FOIA requester nearly $1.5 million for one request.”
■“Many agency FOIA offices have abandoned the statutory requirement to make a determination within 20 working days, or 30 working days in unusual circumstances.”
■“The Executive Branch culture encourages an unlawful presumption in favor of secrecy when responding to Freedom of Information Act requests. White House policy requires consultation on FOIA requests that contain ‘White House equities,’ which slows the response process and encourages the use of Exemptions.”
■“Agencies overuse and misapply exemptions, withholding information and records rightfully owed to FOIA requesters.”
■Every “agency has different policies, fee schedules, and levels of complexity to obtain records, creating an unwelcoming environment for the novice requester.”
The committee recommended structural changes to assure the law works as intended. Congress attempted to do that last year with bipartisan legislation to overhaul FOIA so some bureaucrats can’t make it worthless.
But according to documents obtained by the Associated Press, the White House lobbied hard against the changes.
Recall that on his first day in office, President Barack Obama pledged his would be the most transparent administration in history and swore fealty to the Freedom of Information Act.
Instead, his administration has been among the least open. Under Obama’s watch, the FOIA backlog has swelled by 55 percent to 200,000.
As the report notes, “nothing makes government more accountable than making its actions open and transparent to those paying the bills.”
Legislation is needed to clarify and strengthen FOIA.
Congress should take on the administration on this issue. Government agencies are growing in power and influence, thanks to executive orders that seek to bypass lawmakers.
Those agencies must be made accountable, and should not be able to hide their activities by subverting the Freedom of Information Act.