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By Cheryl Bolen
June 13 — A bill (S. 337) making the most significant changes to the Freedom of Information Act in its 50-year history was passed by the House by voice vote, clearing the measure for President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it.
“Fifty years from now, on FOIA’s centennial anniversary, the next generation will look back to this moment,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said. “With today’s passage of the bipartisan FOIA Improvement Act, we have chosen to let the sunshine in.”
The legislation would make substantial changes to the FOIA law that supporters said would codify a “presumption of openness” when it comes to disclosing federal records and information. The bill also would narrow some restrictions and exemptions to the FOIA law.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said the bill would go a long way toward eliminating the “withhold-it-because-you-want-to exemption” by federal agencies and would make more information available to the public.
Although the House passed a different version of FOIA legislation (H.R. 653) in January, the White House, which initially withheld its support of FOIA overhaul legislation, reluctantly said that the president would sign the Senate version of the bill.
The Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent on March 15 (See previous story, 03/16/16). The Senate previously passed similar FOIA legislation sponsored by Leahy and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) in 2010, 2011 and 2014.
In a statement, Leahy said the bill would give the Office of Government Information Services additional authority to operate more independently and communicate freely with Congress about how FOIA is operating and what improvements can be made.
To bring FOIA into the digital age, the bill would also create an online portal through which the American public can submit FOIA requests, Leahy said. It would also require the proactive online disclosure of frequently requested records, he said.
Alex Howard, a senior analyst at the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for more open government, called the bill a critical step towards building a more transparent, accountable and functional FOIA system.
“While the bill isn't perfect, we are thrilled that the U.S. House of Representatives is moving to vote on the FOIA Improvement Act and look forward to celebrating President Barack Obama signing it into law,” Howard said.
The key change to FOIA sought by open government groups was codifying the presumption of openness for future administrations. The bill would require agencies to disclose information unless there is a foreseeable harm or legal requirement to withhold the information.
The groups also sought to curb what they say is the overuse of FOIA's Exemption 5, which protects inter-agency documents. The bill would require disclosure of documents more than 25 years old and other internal deliberations not otherwise exempt from disclosure.
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