H.R. 1211: FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2014

H.R. 1211

FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2014

Date
February 25, 2014 (113th Congress, 2nd Session)

Staff Contact
Communications

Floor Situation

On Tuesday, February 25, 2014, the House will begin consideration of H.R. 1211, the FOIA Act, under a suspension of the rules.  The bill was introduced on March 15, 2013 by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and referred to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which ordered the bill reported, as amended, by voice vote.

Bill Summary

H.R. 1211 amends the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to improve the FOIA process to increase transparency and accountability in government.

Section 2 amends the FOIA Act to: 1) require executive agencies to make information disclosed under FOIA available in an electronic, publicly accessible format; 2) revise the standard for exempting information under FOIA to require “foreseeable harm from disclosure”; 3) require the Director of the OMB, in consultation with the Director of the Office of Government Information Services, to ensure the existence of one free website to be used for submitting record requests and for receiving automated information on the status of a FOIA request; 4) expand the function and reporting requirements of the Office of Government Information Services; 5) expand the rights of individuals appealing an adverse request determination within 90 days and to receive assistance from the FOIA Public Liaison of the agency in question; 6) require agencies to determine whether a release of their records would be in the public interest because it is likely to contribute to public understanding of the operations of the federal government; 7) require agencies to document additional any additional search or duplication fees and provide written notice that justifies the fees; 8) require agencies to submit annual FOIA reports to the Director of the Office of Government Information Services and the Attorney General, and require the Attorney General to submit an annual report to President and Congress on FOIA activities; 9) expand the duties of the Chief FOIA Officer in each agency to require an annual compliance review of FOIA requirements and establish the Chief FOIA Officers Council to develop recommendations for increasing FOIA compliance requirements; and 10) require each agency to update its FOIA regulations within 180 days of enactment.

Section 3 requires the Director of the OMB to establish a three year pilot program to review the benefits of FOIAonline to process requests and release information under FOIA.  Furthermore, Director of OMB is required to review the benefits of FOIAonline, including any cost savings, changes in the number of requests, increases in transparency or accessibility, and any change in the ability to access or compile information.  Finally, it requires the head of each agency participating in the program to submit a report on the impact of the pilot program to Congress.  Section 4 requires the Inspector General of each agency to periodically review compliance with the requirements of FOIA, including timely processing of requests, assessment of fees and waivers, and the use of exemptions.  The IG is directed to make recommendations determined to be necessary to the head of the agency, including disciplinary action.  This section also makes the improper withholding of information under FOIA a basis for disciplinary action.

Background

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was enacted in 1966, and primarily established the method through which the public could formally request and receive information from the government.[1]  “FOIA establishes a presumption that records in the possession of executive branch agencies and departments of the U.S. Federal Government are accessible to the people.”[2]  The Act did this by changing the standard for disclosure of information from a “need to know” to a “right to know” standard.[3]  FOIA allows any person to request and obtain, without explanation or justification, existing and unpublished records from executive agencies.[4]  FOIA has been amended six times since its original enactment.[5] 

Despite these changes, other issues persist, including: 1) agencies’ use of exceptions to prevent the release of information; 2) agencies’ noncompliance of fee waivers and their assessment of excessive fees in order to dissuade requesters; 3) the backlog of requests, which increased to 83,490 in FY2011; 4) agencies’ failure to comply with FOIA requirements to make frequently requested records available online; and 5) an increase in the number of FOIA-related lawsuits.  H.R. 1211 is intended to strengthen FOIA by increasing transparency and solving some of the primary issues related to the Act.



[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Wendy Ginsburg, The Freedom of Information (FOIA): Background, Legislation, and Policy Issues, Congressional Research Service (Jan. 23, 2014), p . 1.

[5] Id. at i.

Cost

“CBO estimates that implementing H.R. 1211 would cost $20 million over the 2014-2018, assuming the appropriation of the necessary amounts.  This legislation could also affect direct spending by agencies not funded through annual appropriations (such as the Tennessee Valley Authority).”[1]  However, the CBO estimates that any net increase in spending would be insignificant.[2]  The bill states that “no additional funds are authorized to carry out the requirements of this Act and the amendments made by this Act.  Such requirements shall be carried out using amounts otherwise authorized or appropriated.”

Additional Information

For questions or further information contact the GOP Conference at 5-5107.