S. 337, FOIA Improvement Act of 2016

S. 337

FOIA Improvement Act of 2016

Sponsor
Sen. John Cornyn

Committee
Judiciary

Date
June 13, 2016 (114th Congress, 2nd Session)

Staff Contact
Robert Goad

Floor Situation

On Monday, June 13, 2016, the House will consider S. 337, the FOIA Improvement Act, under suspension of the rules. The bill was introduced on February 2, 2015, by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which reported the bill, amended, on February 9, 2015. The Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent on March 15, 2016.

 

Bill Summary

S. 337 amends the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to increase transparency and accountability in government by improving public accessibility of government records. The House passed similar legislation, H.R. 653, by voice vote, on January 11, 2016. The legislative digest for H.R. 653 can be found here.

Specifically, the bill: establishes a single website for making FOIA requests; directs agencies to make records available in an electronic format; restricts the use of exemptions by agencies to withhold information from the public; clarifies procedures for handling frequently requested documents and charging fees; establishes the Chief FOIA Officers Council; and requires agencies to report additional information to Congress on FOIA matters.

A major differences between S. 337 and H.R. 653 is that S. 337 does not include a provision requiring courts to pay some attorney fees and other litigation costs related to FOIA disputes. This provision, included in H.R. 653, was estimated to total approximately $300,000 per year, or roughly $2 million over the 2016-2020 period.

Background

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows any person, irrespective of citizenship, to request and obtain existing and unpublished agency records on any topic for any reason. FOIA was originally enacted in 1966 and was updated in 1974, 1976, 1986, 1996, 2007, and 2010. The Act grants the public presumptive access to agency records unless the material falls within nine exception categories. Disputes over the release of records requested pursuant to FOIA can be appealed administratively, resolved through mediation, or challenged in court.[1] In fiscal year 2014, Executive Branch agencies received over 700,000 FOIA requests; however, agencies invoked exemptions more than 550,000 times.[2] For a full list of the nine categories click here.

In January 2009, the Administration issued a memorandum which stated, “The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.”[3] In March 2009, the Justice Department issued guidance reasserting this presumption of disclosure. According to the Committee,  passage of the FOIA Improvement Act will ensure FOIA remains our nation’s premier transparency law. Codification of the presumption of openness is long overdue, and will reaffirm our commitment to promoting transparency and an open government.[4]

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[1] See CRS Report, “The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA): Background, Legislation, and Policy Issues,” August 15, 2015.
[2] See House Report 114-391 at 9.
[3] See White House Memorandum, “Freedom of Information Act Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies,” January 21, 2009.
[4] See Senate Report 114-004

Cost

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates implementing S. 337 would cost $20 million over the 2015-2020 period, assuming appropriation of the necessary amounts. Enacting S. 337 could affect direct spending by agencies not funded through annual appropriations; therefore, pay-as-you-go procedures apply.

Additional Information

For questions or further information please contact Robert Goad with the House Republican Policy Committee by email or at 6-1831.