A similar bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee a year ago. “It’s a good piece of legislation, and hopefully a strong vote in the House will give it some momentum over here,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, a cosponsor, told reporters in the Capitol on Monday. “Hopefully it won’t be very controversial. It shouldn’t be.”
Earlier versions of bills to boost implementation of FOIA passed the House and Senate in 2014 but were never reconciled.
Controversy over lack of access to Hillary Clinton’s emails and high-profile House hearings have put new focus on federal implementation of the bedrock open-government statute.
Still, it’s not clear whether there’s a political opening to get the bill enacted into law. The White House has been noncommittal on the measure. Press secretary Josh Earnest said that Congress, which isn’t covered under FOIA, should add language ending Capitol Hill’s exemption from public-records requests.
“I would expect that the press corps that spends so much time covering Congress and covering government and demanding transparency would have those same kinds of questions for Congress,” Earnest said Monday. “Congress is the one writing the rules. And right now they're writing the rules in such a way that they don't have to play by them. I don't think that's particularly a, frankly, American way to pursue this."
White House aides said Monday that the administration has already made important strides in improving response to FOIA requests even as their volume has mushroomed, but did not rule out supporting the legislation.
“For the sixth year in a row, more than 90 percent of the FOIA requests processed by the administration resulted in the requester receiving some or all of the requested information. That being said, there’s always more that can be done to improve the process and we are open to working with Congress on additional improvements,” said White House spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine.
And new language in the House bill aimed at protecting intelligence-related information from disclosure is adding a fresh wrinkle.
One section would prevent changes to the FOIA exemption process from applying to information that would “adversely affect intelligence sources and methods.”
In addition, a new section of the bill seeks to prevent FOIA requests from getting held up for extended periods of time when separate agencies must consult with each other on documents. Requests going into limbo amid lengthy consultations between agencies have been a long-standing cause of FOIA delays.
But those provisions to improve the consultation process “shall not apply when the consulted entity is an element of the intelligence community,” the bill states.
Nate Jones, a FOIA expert with the National Security Archive at George Washington University, said the most recent changes have generally made the legislation better, but also said that provisions shielding intelligence agencies from reforms to the consultation process are troubling.