Against hope, against the odds, the United States Senate has passed the Freedom of Information Improvement Act (S.2520) today, when Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) brought it to the floor and it received a vote without objection.
In a statement released over email, Senate Judiciary Committee Leahy and Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), lauded the passage of the bill.
“The FOIA Improvement Act of 2014, which was approved unanimously by the Judiciary Committee last month, requires Federal agencies to operate under a ‘presumption of openness’ when considering the release of government information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This is the same language the President laid out in his historic memorandum in 2009, and which is already being followed by government agencies. The Leahy-Cornyn bill would make this presumption a permanent fixture in FOIA. The legislation would not require the disclosure of information that is prohibited from being released, such as classified information.
Maintaining an open government is fundamental to our democracy. The FOIA Improvement Act will help open the government to all Americans by placing an emphasis on openness and transparency, rather than allowing agencies simply to hide behind exemptions. With the Senate’s action today, it is critical the House take up and pass the FOIA Improvement Act this week so it can be enacted this year.”
The much-needed reform to the Freedom of Information Act isn’t through Congress or made into yet: the U.S. House of Representatives still has to pass this law. (Good news: the People’s House passed the companion bill unanimously, 410-0, back in February.) If the House does vote it through, I assume President Barack Obama will sign it.
A word of caution: it’s not clear yet what agreements were made to bring about this outcome, which had been blocked by a hold by Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-VA). According to a spokesman for Leahy’s office, however, there were no changes to the manager’s amendment. “The Senate passed the bill that was reported by the Judiciary Committee,” he said.
According to an emailed statement from spokesman for Senator Rockefeller, the chairman of the Senate Commerce committee lifted his hold on the act this evening.
While the Senator retains some concerns with the bill, they have been addressed by report language that establishes Congressional intent that courts should take into consideration the concerns of agencies when they withhold information related to law enforcement efforts. Rockefeller placed the hold out of concerns that the bill would have a chilling effect on internal deliberations within government agencies when agency attorneys prepare for an enforcement action – a move that could potentially undermine consumer protection. The Judiciary Committee also agreed to a colloquy, based on Rockefeller’s concerns, which aims to make it clear that Congress places high value on law enforcement personnel’s continued ability to internally exchange ideas and legal strategies.
Chairman Rockefeller has made consumer protection a hallmark of his legislative career. He has also been an advocate of open government and transparency throughout his nearly 30 years in the Senate, including in his current role as Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee which oversees consumer protection. He appreciates the Judiciary Committee’s time in working through his concerns and he supports S. 2520.
Here’s a section-by-section analysis of the FOIA Improvement Act that Senator Leahy’s office released when the bill passed the committee.
“This bill includes several much-needed reforms that will help make federal agencies more open and accountable to the public,” said Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, in an emailed statement. “Today the Senate proved that they can work across the aisle to pass legislation that will make the government more effective. Congress has clearly recognized that the public’s right to information needs to be strengthened. We are happy to have committed Members of Congress in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle, and we encourage the House to take up the bill as soon as possible.”
The window for its passage is not a wide one.
“With only five legislative days remaining, time is short for the House to pass the bill and send it to the president’s desk. Leahy seems unworried about the short timeframe, however, and open government advocates are optimistic that the House will act quickly on this common-sense transparency reform,” wrote Sean Moulton, director of the Open Government Policy program at the Center for Effective Government.
More on this as more reports and statements emerge.
Here’s the statement from Senator Leahy, as prepared for delivery on the floor of the Senate:
The Freedom of Information Act is one of our Nation’s most important laws. For nearly 50 years, FOIA has given Americans a way to access government information, ensuring their right to know what their government doing. Today, the Senate is poised to build on that important legacy with passage of the Leahy-Cornyn FOIA Improvement Act.
The FOIA Improvement Act will codify what the President laid out in his historic executive order in 2009. It will require Federal agencies to adopt a “Presumption of Openness” when considering the release of government information under FOIA. Prioritizing the people’s interest in what their government is doing, our bill will reduce the overuse of exemptions to withhold information where there is no foreseeable harm. It will make information available for public inspection, and make frequently requested documents available online. It will provide the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), with additional independence and authority to carry out its work. I believe this legislation reaffirms the fundamental premise of FOIA, that government information belongs to all Americans.
Passage of the FOIA Improvement Act will help open the government to the more than 300 million Americans it serves. The bill is supported by more than 70 public interest groups that advocate for government transparency. The Sunshine in Government Initiative said the Leahy-Cornyn bill “strengthens government transparency by limiting the ability of agencies to hide decades old documents from the public.” At the Judiciary Committee’s business meeting to consider this legislation, which was reported to the full Senate with unanimous support, Ranking Member Grassley said the FOIA Improvement Act “opens wide the curtains and provides more sunlight on the Federal government.” Senator Cornyn, my partner for many years on government transparency, noted our bipartisan efforts “to open up the government and make it more consumer and customer friendly.” I thank both Senators for their work on this legislation.
Today I ask for unanimous consent that the Senate pass S. 2520, the bipartisan FOIA Improvement Act of 2014. We often talk about the need for government transparency, and many also note how rare it is that Democrats and Republicans can come together on any legislation. Today, we have can accomplish both of those things but time is running out. We drafted this bill in a bipartisan fashion after a long and thoughtful process of consultation. It has broad support from a range of stakeholders. I urge all Senators to support passage of this legislation today, so it can be taken up by the House, and sent to the President to be signed into law before the end of this Congress.
This post has been updated with additional statements.