The Senate voted by voice vote Monday to pass legislation aiming to improve the process behind Freedom of Information Act requests.
Known as the “Faster FOIA Act,” the legislation originally passed the Senate in May but was reintroduced by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) after it became bogged down and killed in the House as part of an effort to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.
The bill would establish a panel to look into agency backlogs, analyze the hurdles facing requests and make recommendations to Congress and various government agencies after one year. During its original introduction, supporters made clear that poor performance by agencies including the Justice Department – which oversees FOIA requests for federal agencies – had spurred legislative action.
“According to the Department of Justice’s Freedom of Information Act Annual Report for Fiscal Year 2009, the department had a backlog of almost 5,000 FOIA requests at the end of 2009,” Leahy said in prepared remarks about the bill in March. “The Department of Homeland Security’s report for the same period shows a backlog of 18,918 FOIA requests. These mounting FOIA backlogs are simply unacceptable.”
The bill now heads for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), and with the debt ceiling crisis clearing, Leahy said in a statement that he hopes the bill will move quickly through the House.
A spokeswoman for Issa said the chairman has not taken a position on the bill and that the committee will probably not take action until after the August recess.
The measure itself has received broad backing from open government organizations, who see it as a positive step that could build momentum for other FOIA reforms. But even among transparency advocates, the bill has critics who say it amounts to nothing more than Washington’s favorite refrain: Let’s create a commission.
“Establishing a commission to look at the root causes of FOIA delays is a weak substitute for action,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, a nonpartisan think tank. “The root causes of FOIA delay are not very mysterious, and the traditional congressional maneuver of establishing a commission is a declaration of impotence.”
While Aftergood said that he’s not necessarily opposed to the measure, he sees it as “weak tea” that holds little promise of fixing anything – the very reason it won easy passage in the Senate, he added.
“If no one is opposed to it, that tells you it’s not doing anything,” he said. “That’s a bad sign in my eyes.”
But Rick Blum, coordinator for the Sunshine in Government Initiative, said there’s nothing wrong with taking a shot at reform with a measure that ultimately can’t hurt anything.
“We don’t really know what the prime problems are on the ground and what the practical solutions are,” Blum said. “The idea of the Faster FOIA Act is to get people inside and outside of government who know the process to understand requesters’ problems … to map the FOIA process and get an idea of what improvements will give the most bang for our buck.”
Blum points to the Justice Department’s FOIA.gov project as an example of the kind of visible improvements he said a commission could help create. The project resulted from suggestions submitted to the department, showing that reform from this formula is possible, he added.
“If the commission takes its work seriously, and doesn’t just reiterate the problems that we all see … it could spur some of the best improvement to FOIA that we’ve seen in decades,” he said. “But if it’s just another paper exercise to reiterate the questions and criticisms of FOIA, then it won’t reach its potential.”
Blum also said he’s optimistic that Issa will use momentum from the bill to work for serious reforms.
“I know that Chairman Issa has a great deal of interest in FOIA and improving the FOIA process,” he said. “His background is in technology, so I’m very hopeful that [the committee] will weigh in on ways to strengthen FOIA.”