Open government advocates hailed the passage of procedural amendments to the Freedom of Information Act that are intended to improve government responsiveness to FOIA requests and to strengthen the hand of requesters.
The OPEN Government Act, which cleared both the Senate and the House over the past week, “becomes the first major reform to the Freedom of Information Act in more than a decade,” said Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the bill’s leading co-sponsor in the Senate along with Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX). Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO), Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) led passage in the House.
Among other things, Senator Leahy explained, “This legislation will improve transparency in the Federal Government’s FOIA process by: restoring meaningful deadlines for agency action under FOIA; imposing real consequences on Federal agencies for missing FOIA’s 20-day statutory deadline; clarifying that FOIA applies to government records held by outside private contractors; establishing a FOIA hotline service for all Federal agencies; and creating a FOIA Ombudsman to provide FOIA requestors and Federal agencies with a meaningful alternative to costly litigation.”
For all of its procedural virtues, the OPEN Government Act does not touch the root of government secrecy, namely the decision to withhold information. The Act does not repeal or modify any of the more than one hundred statutory exemptions from disclosure under the FOIA. And it does not address the proper scope or application of the classification system. That is a task for another day.
Coincidentally, the Department of Defense this week issued a proposed new FOIA regulation for public comment. It will presumably have to be revised again to be made consistent with the new Open Government Act.