Dark Hand of OMB Lifted from FOIA Recommendations — Or So They Say

May 2, 2012

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is one of the most secretive and undemocratic arms of the federal government. Some view it as absurd that the OMB should have considerable authority over federal openness policy. But it does.

This brought an episode of absurdist Kabuki theater in Washington, DC, as the Senate Judiciary Committee finally broke OMB's mailed-fist grip on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) recommendations that the panel wanted to see.

The recommendations had been drawn up in February 2011 by the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), an office housed within the National Archives and known to some as the "FOI Ombudsman." OMB asserts authority over most policy communications from the executive branch to Congress. But OMB sat on the OGIS recommendations for over a year, effectively quashing them.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by FOI champion Patrick Leahy (D-VT), held a hearing during FOI Week, on March 13, 2012, during which he demanded that OMB release the recommendations. After promising the committee something, OGIS director Miriam Nisbet sent them a letter April 13, saying there were no recommendations to Congress, and that all improvements could be handled administratively. Then on April 24, OGIS released the recommendations. They did not include any recommendations for legislative change. Nobody knows what, if any, legislative recommendations OGIS may have originally proposed. In the Obama administration, discussion of government openness policies takes place in secret.

The Open Government Act of 2007, which establishes OGIS, states that OGIS "shall recommend policy changes to Congress and the President to improve the administration of" FOIA.

As released, the recommendations covered four main points:

* Make it easier for agencies to handle requests for people looking for their own records under the Privacy Act, so they don't overburden the FOIA system.
* Reduce barriers to agency sharing of information with OGIS, making it easier for OGIS to do its job of resolving disputes.
* Strengthen OGIS' role in developing a new one-stop, cross-agency online portal for FOIA requests and information (known as the "FOIA Portal," and scheduled for unveiling the month before the 2012 election).
* Strengthen OGIS' role in coordinating and facilitating multi-agency FOIA requests.