House Poised to Pass FOIA Amendments

01.11.16 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The House of Representatives is expected to approve a new package of amendments to the Freedom of Information Act this week, in a bill known as the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2015.

The sponsors of the bill said it “would strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to increase transparency and accountability in government, and improve access to government records for citizens. It amends FOIA to provide for more disclosure of records, through both proactive disclosure and limitations on the use of exemptions. [It] also encourages enhanced agency compliance with statutory requirements and improves the FOIA process for both agencies and requesters.”

The bill would codify a presumption of openness, limit the application of the exemption for deliberative records, facilitate electronic submission of FOIA requests, strengthen the Office of Government Information Services (the FOIA ombudsman), mandate Inspector General reviews of FOIA processing, and several other steps. Detailed justification for the bill is provided in a January 7 report from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

The bill was subsequently modified by the House Intelligence Committee to affirm that its provisions would not require the disclosure of properly classified information or of information that “would adversely affect intelligence sources and methods” that are protected. The term “adversely affect” is not defined but is clearly intended to limit disclosure.

Truth be told, the Freedom of Information Act is a strange law that seems engineered to create an unresolvable tension if not a complete stalemate.

The FOIA empowers individual members of the public (including me and you) to impose a legally binding obligation on a government agency. But while there are no limits on the number or type of requests that a requester may submit at no cost, agencies are nominally supposed to accommodate the demand within a fixed period and with fixed resources. And though it only takes minutes to submit a request, the time required by an agency to fulfill even a simple request is much longer. A sophisticated systems analysis is not needed to anticipate the growth of the backlogs that have in fact developed.

In a further conundrum, those agencies that are more responsive to the FOIA process thereby tend to generate more demand. There is little point in submitting a FOIA request to the Defense Intelligence Agency, to pick one example, because they won’t produce a substantive response in this decade. But other agencies that do respond faithfully are rewarded– with more requests.

The best way to untangle and realign these conflicting imperatives is not clear. More proactive disclosure of information might help, or it might simply shift the burden to more specialized and challenging requests. But just encouraging and making it easier to file FOIA requests is probably not the solution.