Obama, Congress Fine-Tune Information Act

Obama, Congress Fine-Tune Information Act
AP Photo/M. Spencer Green
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At age 50, the Freedom of Information Act received a bit of a facelift Thursday, courtesy of Congress and President Obama.

The president signed a bipartisan, compromise measure designed to improve how the executive branch responds to public requests for information disclosures, and to put additional teeth in the law’s mandates. Obama added some executive enhancements of his own Thursday, hoping his uneven legacy when it comes to federal openness might get a boost, even if the next president ignores his end-of-term procedural upgrades.

“Over the course of my presidency, we’ve processed more Freedom of Information requests than ever before and we have worked to make it easier and more transparent, putting more and more stuff online,” Obama told reporters in the Oval Office, noting the high volume of requests during his two terms.

“Fortunately, Congress, on a bipartisan basis, has provided the tools … to codify some of the reforms we’ve already made, and to expand more of these reforms so government is more responsive,” he added.

Among the law’s changes are requirements to make requested materials available electronically and to make available to the public information requested three or more times. It creates a federal council of FoIA officers to promote transparency and describes mechanisms for FoIA dispute resolution when requesters are turned down.

And the changes now bar federal agencies from withholding information requested under FoIA unless agencies “reasonably foresee” that disclosure would run afoul of a FoIA exemption or is expressly prohibited by law.

Obama amplified the bill signing Thursday by announcing the FoIA officers council would meet for the first time July 22 “to begin work immediately.” And he named new members to a separate government FoIA advisory committee for terms into 2018, when he’ll be gone. That group will meet July 21. The president also said agencies in 2017, in the next administration, are to launch a consolidated portal through which the public can file FoIA requests, which would ease the process for requesters and add other improvements, such as tracking requests already submitted.

President Lyndon Johnson, under political pressure he had initially resisted, signed the first FoIA measure on July 4, 1966, considered by open-government advocates to be among the most important tools available to the public, benefiting historians, researchers, journalists and authors, among others. Many of LBJ’s Oval Office successors, Obama included, similarly found themselves of two minds about the cleansing benefits of sunlight at a time of diminishing trust in government.

Obama pledged to lead the most “open and transparent” administration while campaigning to succeed President George W. Bush, whose administration often defaulted to secrecy rather than disclosure. Promising to pull back the government’s curtains after Bush, Obama by 2011 pocketed a transparency award created by open-government advocacy groups to applaud his aspirations (a tribute he inexplicably accepted in secret).

Over more than seven years, Obama and members of his administration have been faulted for failing to meet some of their own stated goals for openness. From glacial and censored responses to FoIA requests, to over-classification of government information, to surprise revelations about the clandestine expanse of National Security Agency surveillance, to the Justice Department’s prosecution of leakers and its probes aimed at journalists, the administration invited harsh public appraisals.

The Freedom of Information Act remains a potent pry bar for public disclosures in combination with the courts. For example, official email communications not turned over to the State Department by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from her personal server are now public as a result of court-ordered enforcement of FoIA requests filed by Judicial Watch, a conservative investigatory organization that delights in using lawsuits to dig into controversies.

The nonprofit Sunlight Foundation commended Congress and Obama Thursday for enacting the FoIA reforms, which take effect immediately. While calling the amendments “a victory for open government,” the advocacy organization said both branches could do more to improve government transparency.

“Codifying a 'presumption of openness' for disclosing government records to the public is unquestionably a step forward,” the group said in a statement. “The federal government has repeatedly set records for denying [FoIA] requests. A 90 percent commitment to openness is not enough.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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