S. 2520, FOIA Improvement Act

S. 2520

FOIA Improvement Act

Sponsor
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy

Date
December 10, 2014 (113th Congress, 2nd Session)

Staff Contact
Communications

Floor Situation

On Wednesday, December 10, 2014, the House will consider S. 2520, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Improvement Act, under a suspension of the rules. S. 2520 was introduced on June 24, 2014 by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and passed the Senate with an amendment by unanimous consent on December 8, 2014. The House companion, H.R. 1211, the FOIA Act, passed the House by a vote of 410-0 on February 25, 2014. (See Roll Call # 63).

Bill Summary

S. 2520 strengthens the FOIA process to increase transparency and accountability in government. The bill codifies the Attorney General’s memo establishing a presumption of openness, while still protecting sensitive materials. It also places a sunset provision of 25 years on records withheld under Exemption 5 of FOIA (there are nine exemptions). S. 2520 amends FOIA to provide for more proactive disclosure of records, establishes a standard for the posting of “frequently requested” records, and clarifies when agencies cannot charge search and duplication fees.

S. 2520 requires the Office of Management and Budget, in consultation with the Attorney General, to establish a single FOIA website to be used for making requests and monitoring the status of those requests. The bill creates a Chief FOIA Officers Council to review compliance with the Act and to make recommendations. The bill strengthens the independence of the Office of Government Information Services, the federal FOIA ombudsman, by allowing it to submit testimony and legislative proposals directly to Congress.

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to know” standard.[3]  FOIA allows any person to request and obtain, without explanation or justification, existing and unpublished records from executive agencies.[4]  FOIA has been amended six times since its original enactment.[5]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) an increase in the number of backlog requests, which in FY 2011 increased to 83,490; 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.

__________
[1] House Report 113-155, p. 5.
[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 did not complete a score for S. 2520.  The House-passed bill, H.R. 1211, was scored as costing $20 million over the 2014-2018 period, assuming appropriation of the necessary amounts. The legislation also could affect direct spending by agencies not funded through annual appropriations; however any net increase in spending by those agencies would not be significant.

Additional Information

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