FOIA reform bill now in Bush's hands

Congress unanimously approved Dec. 19 a bill that would strengthen the Freedom of Information Act.

The OPEN Government Act of 2007 would increase agency compliance requirements and establish, said Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), a governmentwide ombudsman to handle problems and litigation.

The bill also would establish a phone and Internet-based tracking system for FOIA requests that take longer than 10 days. Requests would be assigned tracking numbers.

Clay, who sponsored the bill, said that it would provide better government transparency.

“The United States government belongs to the people, and whenever possible, we should err on the side of full disclosure of information,” he said. The bill is a companion to the committee-relegated Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 2007.

If President Bush signs the bill, it would require agencies to disclose any exemptions that allow them to redact information in filled requests. Agencies would also have to publicly explain the reasons for any delayed requests.

Any problems with requests would be referred to the Office of Government Information Services within the National Archives and Records Administration. The office would mediate any disputes between requesters and agencies as an effort to avoid legal wrangling. They would be overseen by the Government Accountability Office.

Agencies currently must have a chief FOIA officer to handle FOIA-related issues and requests, as stipulated by an executive order issued early in 2006.

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