Bipartisan Letter Seeks Answers on Open-Government Failures

A U.S. House panel has asked the Justice Department to explain why agencies have not implemented President Barack Obama’s 2009 pledge to make government more transparent by releasing records requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

Representative Darrell Issa, the California Republican who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings, the panel’s top Democrat, asked Justice to explain why many agencies haven’t followed an order to update procedures for complying with the open-records law.

The letter seeking an explanation was sent to the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy, which oversees government compliance with FOIA and provides legal advice on requests for records.

They asked for copies of directives and other memos that the office has sent to government agencies and an explanation of why there continues to be an “excessive use and abuse of exemptions” to avoid releasing government records, their letter said. The lawmakers asked for a response from the administration by Feb. 22.

On his first full day in office in 2009, Obama called FOIA “the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open government.”

Holder’s Order

The congressional letter asked whether agencies had complied with Attorney General Eric Holder’s 2009 directive ordering agencies to update their FOIA response procedures.

“It is unclear whether agencies have fully adopted this direction,” the lawmakers said.

In December, an open-government group released an analysis that showed shortcomings in the Obama administration’s transparency record.

The National Security Archive, a Washington-based information repository, said in a Dec. 4 study that 62 of the 99 government agencies it reviewed hadn’t updated their response practices more than three years after Holder’s guidance was issued. That study was cited in the lawmakers’ letter this week.

The committee’s attention “to open government is welcome” because “it’s important for the administration to know that Congress is watching and cares about these issues,” said Steven Aftergood, who directs the government-secrecy project of the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists. “Both carrots and sticks are needed to make the system work.”

‘No Excuse’

There is “no excuse” for “the failure by agencies to update their FOIA regulations,” Aftergood said in an e-mail.

Bloomberg reporters in June tested Obama’s pledge to “usher in a new era of open government.” FOIA requests were filed to obtain records on taxpayer-supported travel in fiscal year 2011 for 57 Cabinet departments and government agencies.

Only eight agencies complied within the 20-day deadline. About half of those contacted by Bloomberg disclosed the data within three months of the filings. As of Dec. 12, eight more agencies had responded with the information, bringing the total to 38 out of 57.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Kathleen Sebelius of the Department of Health and Human Services and Holder himself were among those who hadn’t complied.

‘Illegal’ Fees

The committee also sought information about outdated FOIA regulations and the “exorbitant and possibly illegal fee assessments” that are charged for searching for documents and determining whether they can be released.

Office of Information Policy Director Melanie Ann Pustay also was asked by lawmakers to explain why there was a 21 percent increase in the length of time it took to process requests between 2010 and 2011. The increase in processing backlogs was almost three times the increase in requests that the government received for records releases, the letter said.

Lawsuits filed in federal district court to force the government to comply with FOIA requests have surged under Obama.

FOIA-related complaints jumped 28 percent to 720 in the last two years of Obama’s first term from 562 in the last two years of President George W. Bush’s second term, according to a study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

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