FOIA-Strengthening Bills Come Back to Life in House and Senate

March 11, 2015

A bill to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act awaits Senate floor action. But the Obama administration, which once pledged to be the most open in history, has so far been strangely silent. Crickets.

Often when bills are poised for floor action, a president communicates his support, opposition, or desire for amendments via a "Statement of Administration Policy (SAP)," which goes to the House or Senate via the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). In the case of the FOIA bill (S 337) unanimously approved February 5, 2015, by the Senate Judiciary Committee, no Statement of Administration Policy has appeared.

This year's S 337 is similar to one (S 2520) the Senate unanimously passed last year. The administration took no position publicly via SAP on that bill either.

The House showed interest in passing FOIA reform again when an Oversight and Government Reform Committee subpanel held a hearing on its own bill (HR 653) on February 27, 2015. It is similar to one passed 410-0 last year by the full House.

President Obama's silence on openness last year was not for want of encouragement. Many journalism and open-government groups — including the Society of Environmental Journalists — had written to President Obama in October 2014, urging him to take a stand in favor of FOIA reform legislation. He did not.

The explanation of why has emerged in various media accounts during this year and last. Much of the opposition comes from federal agencies, particularly financial regulators like the Comptroller of the Currency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission. A new report suggests that opposition may even come from litigating agencies like the Justice Department itself, based on fears that too much disclosure could re-open long-settled court cases.

"Worries from the agencies are whispered into lawmakers' ears," wrote E&E Publishing's Kevin Bogardus, "and then burrow into their official statements, raising alarm about FOIA's increased burdens if Congress tinkers with it yet again." Bogardus had talked to key Congressional players about FOIA legislation.

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