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The FOI Advocate is a compendium of ideas, edited story excerpts and other materials from a variety of Web sites, as well as original concepts and analysis. When the information comes directly from another source, it will be attributed and a link will be provided whenever possible. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited. We will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

FOI Reforms Move Out of Committee!

Big News out of Washington:

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee today approved HR 1309, the Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 2007, sponsored by William Lacey Clay, D-MO, Todd Platts, R-PA, and Henry Waxman, D-CA.

The bill is intended to force broad changes in government agency performance and response to FOIA requests.

The committee also cleared two other open government bills, one overturning President Bush’s order that blocked release of presidential records, the other requiring disclosure of donors to presidential libraries. All are expected to be offered for floor vote within the next week.

Also next week, Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, and John Cornyn, R-TX, will introduce the 2007 version of their OPEN Government Act. The major difference between the House and Senate bills may be the final section of the House bill, which creates a presumption of openness for government records and direct agencies to release information if they do not reasonably foresee that disclosure would be harmful.

In effect, this reverses the Ashcroft memo – withhold information if there is any legal basis to do so. This still stands as Justice Department guidance to all federal agencies. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-TX, who sponsored FOIA reform in the last Congress, introduced a bill identical to Clay”s except for this section. At Thursday’s hearing, Republicans tried but failed to strike this section.

Here’s what else the “Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 2007” does:

-- Put pressure on the agencies to meet the 20-working day response deadline by waiving search and copying fees if the deadline isn’t met.

-- Requires agencies to establish FOIA hotlines and request tracking systems.

-- Creates an independent ombudsman, located in the National Archives, to help requesters resolve disputes without resorting to litigation.

-- Establishes the requester’s right to recover legal fees if they obtain disputed records from an agency after filing suit.

-- Broadens the definition of a journalist for fee waiver purposes to include most freelancers and bloggers.

-- Mandates broader and more specific performance reporting to heighten agency accountability for service quality.

-- Direct agencies to indicate the specific exemption being cited at the location of any redaction in a document.

-- Makes clear that government records held by private entities are covered by FOIA.

-- Requires that any bill amending the Freedom of Information Act include a clear marker declaring that intent.

-- Directs the Office of Personnel Management to report on the adequacy of FOIA staffing.

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