FOIA bill includes governmentwide online portal

Under the Senate-passed FOIA Improvement Act of 2015, OMB would take the lead in creating a one-stop online portal for FOIA requests across the federal government.

Shutterstock image: digital record management.

The Senate, by unanimous consent on March 15, passed the FOIA Improvement Act of 2015 to reform the Freedom of Information Act. The bill's sponsors, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), praised their lawmakers on approving the measure which provides better access to information from the U.S. government.

Among other things, the bill puts the Office of Management and Budget in charge of creating a one-stop online portal for filing all Freedom of Information Act requests, with hopes of faster responses and better disclosure of information from the government.

The bill's passage comes during Sunshine Week, a celebration of open government and records access laws.

OMB will take lead of the consolidated online request portal, in consultation with the Justice Department, whose Office of Information Policy tracks governmentwide FOIA stats. The consolidated portal would allow FOIA requests to be made to any agency. OMB will also be responsible for establishing the standards for interoperability between the portal and any other FOIA software used by agencies to fulfil this task.

To promote better sharing of information with the public, this bill will require agencies to function under what's being called a "presumption of openness" when considering the release of government information under the FOIA.  In addition, the Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives, which deals with FOIA disputes, will be given more authority.

Leahy, the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, "Our very democracy is built on the idea that our government should not operate in secret. The FOIA Improvement Act will help open the government to the 300 million Americans it serves and ensure that future administrations place an emphasis on openness and transparency." He also urged the House to take similar action.

In January, the House passed the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act on a voice vote. The House and Senate bills are similar but not identical, so further legislative action is needed to move a FOIA bill to the president..

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), author of the House bill, said, in a statement that he looks "forward to hammering out the details between the two bills to send a final solution to the President's desk for his approval as soon as possible." 

The White House has indicated that President Obama would sign FOIA legislation if passed in Congress.

A recent majority staff report from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee flogged various agencies for undermining FOIA and highlighting a "broken" process. "Hundreds of thousands of requests are made each year, and hundreds of thousands of requests are backlogged, marked with inappropriate redactions or otherwise denied," the report noted.

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