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House Passes Extensive FOIA Reform Bill

Many years in the making, the House passed legislation (H.R. 653) Monday aimed at easing the process of obtaining government records in light of a new congressional report that labeled the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) system dysfunctional and opaque.

The bill, passed by voice vote, is designed to reign in ex­cess­ive use of ex­emp­tions that en­able agen­cies to with­hold doc­u­ments from the pub­lic, and speed­ up request responses. It would also create an online portal where people can make FOIA requests, and would require agencies to post all records that are the subject of three or more requests online.

“The re­forms con­tained in the bill will sig­ni­fic­antly im­prove the Amer­ic­an pub­lic’s abil­ity to ex­er­cise their right to ac­cess in­form­a­tion un­der the Free­dom of In­form­a­tion Act,” said Rep. Jason Chaf­fetz (R-UT), chair­man of the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee.

Chaffetz contributed to the bill, which is sponsored by committee rank­ing mem­ber Eli­jah Cum­mings (D-MD) and former Chair­man Dar­rell Issa (R-CA).

A recent House Oversight and Government Reform Committee majority staff report criticized numerous agencies for undermining FOIA.

"The FOIA process is broken," the report states. "Hundreds of thousands of requests are made each year, and hundreds of thousands of requests are backlogged, marked with inappropriate redactions or otherwise denied."

Read an excerpt from the report summary:

The FOIA process is broken. Unnecessary complications, misapplication of the law, and extensive delays are common occurrences. Agencies fail to articulate reasons for delays or explain how to navigate the process. Requesters wait months, not weeks, before receiving any response. Even a denial on a technicality can be significantly delayed because the agency may fail to read the request for months. Unreasonable requests for detail and repeated ultimatums to respond within narrow windows or start all over reinforce the perspective that the process is designed to keep out all but the most persistent and experienced requesters.

Rep. Cummings, while expressing his support for the legislation, also noted during floor debate over the legislation that budget and staff cuts of the past several years have presented legitimate challenges for agencies in responding to a growing number of FOIA requests.

Michael Morisy, a Boston-based journalist and co-founder of MuckRock, told Law Blog that he largely agrees with the conclusions in the House report. Too many agencies have “chronically underfunded” FOIA offices and “feel like they own the data and parcel it out when it’s convenient,” he said.

Morisy said the federal government has focused on developing centralized repositories like FOIAonline but still too often rely on outdated paper-based systems for managing and retaining records.

FOIA reform legislation also passed the House in the last Congress, before failing to clear the Senate at the end of the legislative session. A companion, bipartisan FOIA reform bill (S. 337) currently awaits floor action in the Senate.

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