Open Government: Improved FOIA laws crucial

By Caroline H. Little
President and CEO, Newspaper Association of America

President Obama has routinely promised greater transparency within the federal government. Now, Congress is making strides towards achieving this critical goal.

The House of Representatives and Senate are currently considering nearly identical bills to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which provides the general public, including journalists, with access to federal government records.

This legislation has received broad support across media organizations, including the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of which the Newspaper Association of America is a member. And here’s why:

Openness instead of secrecy would be the “default” key within the government.

The legislation would require agencies to release documents under a “presumption of openness,” reaffirming the principle that information should never be kept confidential to protect government interests at the expense of the public. Agencies would need to prove specific harm that could result from disclosures before withholding documents. While this policy has been in place since 2009, the legislation would ensure future administrations honor this objective for openness.

Citizens and journalists would receive requested information in a more timely fashion and would be updated on the status of their request or reason for denial. Federal agencies would be allowed to withhold information on policy deliberations for only 25 years – currently, there is no limit.

The legislation would require agencies to post frequently requested information online. This will give citizens and journalists more timely access to key information and a deeper understanding of what the government is doing – or not doing.

The Freedom of Information Act remains a powerful, though currently inefficient, tool to obtain public information. Last year, several key stories were brought to light as a result of reporters’ FOIA record requests.

The Associated Press was able to show that people accused of Nazi war crimes had continued receiving Social Security payments after leaving our country. In another instance, a reporter reviewing military ballistics tests found that the Marine Corps had issued armored vests that failed to protect against bullets – and 5,277 vests were quickly recalled, perhaps saving lives. Likewise, records obtained through FOIA revealed that some firefighter safety equipment failed to work properly when exposed to heat or moisture, rendering it ineffective in crisis situations.

Without these records and journalists’ diligent research, none of this would have been brought to public attention. Our armed forces and firefighters may have been directly harmed as a result.

The Freedom of Information Act was enacted in 1966. It remains critical for creating and preserving an open and accountable government. However, it must be updated to keep up with changing technology and a persistent mindset within federal agencies that information belongs to the government not the general public.

Congress came very close to passing FOIA reform legislation last year before the end of the 113th Congress. Now, members in both the Senate and House are working in a bi-partisan fashion to move these bills forward in the new Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved its FOIA reform bill, S. 337, which is sponsored by Senators John Cornyn, Patrick Leahy, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley.

The House bill (H.R. 653), which is sponsored by Representatives Darrell Issa and Elijah Cummings, was reported out of committee last week.  We applaud the bills’ sponsors and the congressional leadership for turning their attention to this good government legislation. We hope that this momentum bodes well for bipartisan, bicameral action early in the new Congress.

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