FEDERAL AGENCIES

Bipartisan plan would revamp FOIA as part of effort to boost transparency

With government transparency advocates around the country celebrating Sunshine Week, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee yesterday unveiled a new proposal to reform the Freedom of Information Act.

The discussion draft of the FOIA reform bill from panel Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) comes as the two prepare to hold a hearing today on ways to move toward a more open government. Along with their bill, other topics expected to be addressed at today's hearing are ways to use technology to create a more accountable government and efforts to reform the federal advisory committee process.

Cummings and Issa are proposing a multi-pronged effort to reform FOIA including a review and expansion of the online portal that allows the public to make FOIA requests; a requirement for agencies to put online all releasable information requested three or more times; a streamlining of the FOIA dispute resolution process and establishment of more specific timelines; and increased independence for the Office of Government Information Services, which would report directly to Congress without interagency review.

The bill also would expand on the principle promoted by Attorney General Eric Holder at the outset of the Obama administration that, when in doubt, openness should prevail. Instead of requiring the public to justify the release of information, Issa and Cummings want to place the burden on agencies to demonstrate why information should be withheld.

"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 said in a release yesterday.

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The bill was warmly received by government transparency experts yesterday afternoon at an event sponsored by the Congressional Transparency Caucus, of which Issa is a founding member.

Gavin Baker, a policy analyst at the Center for Effective Government, said at the event that despite efforts to amend the FOIA process with legislation in 2007, large backlogs of FOIA requests continue to pile up and agencies often fail to live up to their responsibilities under the law.

Baker said that many of his ideas for fixing FOIA have been wrapped into Cummings and Issa's bill.

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who is also a co-chairman of the Transparency Caucus, said yesterday that with congressional approval ratings at an all-time low, it has become clear that the American public is losing its trust in government.

"When you lose the public's trust, you lose the ability to lead," he said.

Quigley said that transparency efforts will be essential in rebuilding the public's trust in the government, but he acknowledged that changing the system wouldn't be easy.

"This can be a very discouraging place, but we owe it to the American people to keep trying. This is their government," he said.

Issa yesterday noted that President Obama promised to create the most transparent administration in history when he took office.

"Four years later however, the hard truth is that the potential of the President's transparency goals have not been realized," Issa said in a statement. "The role of this Committee and of many of the groups represented here today is to work to ensure that by the end of the President's second term, President Obama will be able to say that he, in fact, did have the most transparent administration ever."

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