Congress pressures agencies to improve E-FOIA compliance

House and Senate bills focus on improving the efficiency and transparency of E-FOIA.

Lawmakers are turning up the heat on agencies that are lax in complying with the Freedom of Information Act. Some federal offices have unanswered document requests dating back to 1989, according to testimony at a recent hearing to review E-FOIA legislation.

Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and John Cornyn (R-Texas), chairman and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said they support legislation that would hold agencies accountable for processing FOIA requests in accordance with the Electronic Freedom of Information Act (E-FOIA) that Leahy co-authored in 1996.

Under the E-FOIA law, agencies are required to set up electronic reading rooms stocked with frequently requested documents and reference materials to help the public locate government records or information. The law gives agencies 20 days to decide whether they can comply with any given request. It directs them to devise expedited ways to improve responsiveness, and it establishes annual workload reporting requirements to gauge agencies’ performance in meeting the law’s requirements.

Leahy said the results of a recent audit by the Government Accountability Office show a poor record of performance. “Agencies had 43 percent more FOIA requests pending and outstanding in 2006 than they had in 2002,” he said. “As the number of FOIA requests continue to rise, our federal agencies remain unable, or unwilling to keep pace.”

 Leahy said the number of FOIA requests submitted annually has increased by more than 65,000 since 2004, according to a recent report by Openthegovernment.org. Because agencies have not kept up, pending requests have been carried from year to year. Some date back to 1989, Leahy said.

E-FOIA provides a means for agencies to save time and money and avoid backlogged requests by posting documents online, said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel for The George Washington University’s National Security Archive.

While the Senate last week debated how to remedy agencies’ poor compliance with E-FOIA, the House ignored White House opposition and passed three bills to open up government records.

The Senate followed with a bill to improve administrative oversight and penalize agencies that do not process E-FOIA requests in the 20 business-day period specified in the law.

Democratic House leaders proposed bills to make FOIA request processing more efficient, to make presidential library contributions public, and to overturn former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s post-Sept. 11 presidential directive to keep presidential records from public view.

The Bush administration objected to the presidential records bill in a statement released March 13. It states that two sections of the bill encroach on the president’s constitutional authority by overriding his constitutionally based privilege not to disclose records.

Some agencies have made an effort to make government documents available online, but many agencies have made little progress in that area.

A recent archive poll of 149 agencies revealed that only one in five agencies fully complied with E-FOIA law by providing access to all categories of records specified in the law.

Kristin Adair, the archive’s staff counsel and the report’s primary author, said the problem is agencies have not been held accountable for the contents of their Web sites. 

Cranmer is an intern with the 1105 Government Information Group.

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