Senate Unanimously Approves Legislation Aimed at Cutting Down FOIA Delays

The Senate unanimously passed a bill Wednesday aimed at cutting through the bureaucratic red tape that has lead to long delays and backlogs associated with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The bipartisan legislation, “The Faster FOIA Act,” was sponsored by Senate Judiciary Charman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is also a member of the committee.

The bill calls for the establishment of an advisory panel that will review the backlogs and brief Congress and President Barack Obama on steps that need to be taken legislatively to reduce the overflow of FOIA requests.

“Senator Cornyn and I believe that agency delays in processing FOIA requests are simply unacceptable, and that is why we introduced this bill,” Leahy said in a statement. “This bill will establish a bipartisan commission to examine the root causes of agency FOIA delays and to recommend to the Congress and the President steps to help eliminate FOIA backlogs.”

In a statement, Cornyn added that the bill “marks an important benchmark in the effort to open up our federal government, which Sen. Leahy and I have fought for years to make more accessible and transparent to the American people.”

“This bipartisan legislation will add new accountability measures to FOIA and will be a great benefit to Americans, who deserve to be treated as valued customers when they seek answers from their government,” Cornyn said.

The bill was introduced in March, during Sunshine Week, an event that calls attention to transparency in government. However, Leahy and Cornyn have been working on various versions of the bill since 2005.

Days after he was sworn into office, Obama signed an executive order instructing all federal agencies and departments to “adopt a presumption in favor” of FOIA requests, and promised to make the federal government more transparent.

“The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears,” Obama’s order said. “In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.”

But the administration has not always lived up to its promise. Last year, the Obama administration ordered lawmakers to amend FOIA and grant Defense Secretary Robert Gates the authority to withhold “protected documents” that, if released, would endanger the lives of US soldiers or government employees deployed outside of the country.

The documents at issue were photographs of US soldiers abusing detainees held in prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had won a FOIA lawsuit it filed against the Bush administration to gain access to the photos.

Obama had originally agreed to turn them over to the ACLU last year, but backtracked on his promise after he was attacked by Republicans and advised that the photos would stoke anti-American sentiment in the Middle East.

In fact, according to an Associated Press review of FOIA reports filed by 17 governmental agencies, legal exemptions to keep documents under wraps increased in 2009, despite Obama’s pledge.

“…The use of nearly every one of the [FOIA] law’s nine exemptions to withhold information from the public rose in fiscal year 2009, which ended last October,” the AP reported in March.

“Among the most frequently used exemptions: one that lets the government hide records that detail its internal decision-making,” the AP noted. “Obama specifically directed agencies to stop using that exemption so frequently, but that directive appears to have been widely ignored.

“Major agencies cited that exemption at least 70,779 times during the 2009 budget year, up from 47,395 times during President George W. Bush’s final full budget year, according to annual FOIA reports filed by federal agencies. Obama was president for nine months in the 2009 period.”

The Leahy-Cornyn bill stll needs to be approved by the House before it is sent to Obama for his signature.