A Fourth of July (Almost) Call for FOIA Reform

By July 3, 2007Media Relations

The NAM is joining a broad cross-section of groups (insert “strange bedfellows” comment) to call for reforms to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). From the National Security Archive at George Washington University, this release.

Washington DC, July 3, 2007 – As the 41st birthday of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) approaches, a coalition of groups urged the U.S. Congress to pass a bill – currently locked behind a closed door – that would reform the FOIA and make it work better for the public. The OPEN Government Act (S. 849) would enact common-sense reforms to the FOIA and put in place incentives for federal agencies to process FOIA requests from the public in a timely manner.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark law on July 4, 1966, he declared: “A democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation will permit.” Indeed, when members of the public have diligently pursued information under the FOIA, they have identified government waste and mismanagement and exposed significant controversies about government programs.

Our government is not at its best, however, when it takes up to 20 years for a FOIA request to be processed, agencies routinely lose FOIA requests because they have no tracking system and the government leads requesters into litigation only to release requested documents on the eve of a judicial decision, as several studies have demonstrated.

NAM President John Engler sent a letter to the Senate last month in support of S. 849 (.pdf copy of letter here). Key passage:

The NAM appreciates that FOIA allows its members to obtain information that should be publicly available, even as it protects the release of information that is truly confidential and proprietary. Far too often, businesses need to resort to the FOIA process for a variety of reasons, including complying fully with federal laws and regulations, obtaining information needed for an investigation or a legal proceeding and understanding the reasoning behind agency decisions.

The reforms contained in S. 849 would help to make the process more efficient and streamlined by establishing a tracking system, having each agency name a FOIA ombudsman, clarifying that agencies cannot avoid FOIA requirements by contracting out their recordkeeping functions, and imposing a deadline for agency responses to requests. In addition, the bill would restore the ability of requesters who have been forced to litigate to collect their legal fees.

Despite the best intentions of many federal officials, FOIA requests are often handled in an arbitrary and inconsistent way, preventing businesses and the public from accessing information they have every right to. S. 849 would bring some order to the copying chaos.

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