Transparency Bill Would Create Portal for U.S. Records Requests

Two top lawmakers in the U.S. House will release a draft bill that would for the first time create a single portal for requesting records from federal agencies.

The measure is sponsored by Representatives Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Elijah Cummings, the panel’s top Democrat. It would put the burden on the government to show why information should be withheld in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, according to draft legislation obtained by Bloomberg.

The legislation would also require agencies to post online any documents or data requested three or more times and to update FOIA regulations across all government agencies.

“This bill strengthens FOIA, our most important open government law, and makes clear that the government should operate with a presumption of openness and not one of secrecy,” Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, said in a statement today.

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

The president pledged in the 2009 executive order to improve government transparency through technology upgrades and interagency reviews, and instructed agencies that disclosure should be the default position on most requests.

Transparency Test

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder followed up Obama’s statement with his own directive in March 2009, ordering government agencies to review their internal FOIA rules to improve response records. In the memo, Holder said that timeliness of FOIA responses was “an essential component of transparency.”

Issa, a California Republican, and Cummings in February asked the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy, which oversees government compliance with FOIA and provides legal advice on requests for records, to explain why agencies hadn’t acted on Obama’s 2009 pledge.

The lawmakers also asked for copies of directives and other memos that the office 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.

Bloomberg News last year tested the administration’s transparency pledge. Reporters in June filed requests to obtain records on taxpayer-supported travel for 57 cabinet departments and government agencies in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2011.

20-Day Deadline

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 were among those who hadn’t complied.

The draft legislation announced today, called the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2013, would create a chief FOIA Officer Council to review compliance with the law. It would also give the Office of Government Information Services, which acts as the FOIA ombudsman, increased independence and the ability to report directly to Congress without having to work through agencies.

The House panel will discuss the government’s performance on FOIA requests tomorrow, to mark what the administration calls ‘Sunshine Week,’ celebrating transparency.

“The draft bill is designed to strengthen transparency by ensuring that legislative and executive action to improve FOIA over the past two decades is fully implemented by federal agencies,” Issa said.

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