Congress is considering legislation that would enact far-reaching reforms to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
On January 11, the U.S. House passed the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act, which includes new limitations on the ability of federal agencies to withhold information requested under FOIA. The U.S. Senate has already passed a similar bill.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), former chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, said, “We regularly use the Freedom of Information Act, and we regularly find ourselves frustrated,” according to a report in The Hill.
Issa’s frustration is shared by many of his colleagues and by outside groups, who complain their FOIA requests have been frequently met by long delays, heavily redacted documents, and refusals by agencies to turn over documents, citing numerous exemptions in current law.
Dozens of groups across the political spectrum advocating for open-government reforms have called for FOIA reform to improve government transparency, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Data Transparency Coalition, FreedomWorks, the Government Accountability Project, Human Rights Watch, the National Taxpayers Union, People for the American Way, R Street Institute, and the Sunlight Foundation
EPA Is a Repeat FOIA Offender
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently received much criticism from advocacy groups, members of Congress, and some federal courts for its alleged abuse of FOIA loopholes to deny access to government information.
In a highly critical 25-page opinion issued on March 2, 2015, Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled EPA had shown “apathy and carelessness” in carrying out FOIA requests from conservative organizations. Lamberth admonished the agency for its handling of an open-records request from the Landmark Legal Foundation.
“[T]he recurring instances of disregard that EPA employees display for FOIA obligations should not be tolerated by the agency at large,” Lamberth said in his ruling. “This court would implore the Executive Branch to take greater responsibility in ensuring that EPA FOIA requests—regardless of the political affiliation of the requester—are treated with equal respect and conscientiousness.”
“This bill is long-overdue,” said David W. Schnare, general counsel of the Energy and Environment Legal Institute. “Having spent over 35 years in government service and having been on the government side of FOIA battles for all those years, I know first-hand the blatant misuse of the act that keeps the public from knowing what the government is doing.
“This bill will not solve the problem, but it is a big step forward,” Schnare said.
“The administration touts itself as being the most transparent in history, but it tends to confuse transparency with invisibility,” said Sam Kazman, general counsel with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “FOIA reform might well reduce that confusion.”
Bonner R. Cohen ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.
Judge Royce C. Lamberth, Ruling in Landmark Legal Foundation v. EPA, March 2, 2005: https://heartland.org/policy-documents/legal-opinion-landmark-legal-foundation-vs-epa