House, Senate pass measure to strength FOIA

The OPEN Government Act improves the process by which the federal government carries out the FOIA's disclosure requirements.

Congress approved legislation Dec. 18 to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which reporters, researchers and citizens rely on to unearth information from government programs, agencies and bureaus.

The Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act, or OPEN Government Act, improves the process by which the federal government carries out the FOIA's disclosure requirements, although it does not alter the disclosure requirements or any of its exemptions.

It creates an independent ombudsman to resolve citizen disputes, helps agencies strengthen the FOIA, creates a tracking system for the public to easily track the status of requests and allows requesters to more effectively recover legal costs incurred when agencies improperly deny requests.

Other components of the legislation include:

  • restoring meaningful deadlines for agency action;
  • imposing real consequences on federal agencies for missing the FOIA’s 20-day statutory deadline;
  • clarifying that the FOIA applies to government records held by outside private contractors;
  • establishing an FOIA hotline service for all federal agencies; and
  • creating an FOIA ombudsman to provide information requestors and federal agencies with an alternative to litigation.

The authors of the final version of the legislation were Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, John Cornyn, R-TX, and Jon Kyl, R-AZ, in the Senate and Reps. Todd Platts, R-PA, and Henry Waxman, D-CA, in the House. The White House has not said whether the president plans to sign the legislation.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association as well as the Society of Professional Journalists applauded passage of the legislation. “This is an important step to ensuring open access to the public record by journalists and all citizens,” said SPJ national president Clint Brewer.