FOIA Reform Passes the House; Why You Should Care and Get Involved

january 13, 2016  03:00 pm
For several years now, AAN has been one of the 9 members of the Sunshine in Government Initiative (SGI). SGI is a coalition of media groups committed to promoting policies that ensure the government is accessible, accountable and open. Its primary focus is on federal issues and, in recent years, no issue has been bigger than trying to achieve passage of much needed reforms to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). We almost got there in 2014, when similar, but identical bills, passed the House and the Senate; however, differences between the two weren’t resolved, preventing enactment into law.

We regrouped and gained a major victory on Monday, January 11, when the House of Representatives passed HR 653, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2015. The bill would improve FOIA in many different ways, including but not limited to:

  • Limiting the breadth of various FOIA exemptions and creating accountability when exemptions are invoked

  • Establishing penalties agencies and individual employees violate FOIA

  • Requiring multiple levels of independent compliance review to ensure that agencies are held accountable to the law

  • Establishing FOIA training requirements and FOIA-related performance reviews to ensure compliance by all employees of agencies

  • Strengthening the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) which serves as a “FOIA Ombudsman” for requesters encountering roadblocks in using FOIA

  • Making it easier to submit and track FOIA requests

  • Increases access to public records by ensuring that more records are proactively posted online and requests can be made online

  • Establishes a Chief FOIA Officers Council to ensure that FOIA matters are given attention at the highest levels of each agency

As SGI Director Rick Blum noted in a press release lauding passage of HR 653 and thanking the bill's sponsors, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Elijah Cummings (D-MD), and Mike Quigley (D-IL) as well as House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the vote “to strengthen disclosure under FOIA shows that Congress can find common ground to make government more transparent and accountable.”

I realize that many AAN members aren’t frequent users of the federal FOIA. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be – and it certainly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care. Take a look at this list from the SGI website called the “FOIA Files” which identifies stories written using the federal FOIA about issues affecting not only national interests but purely state and local communities as well. In addition, we are always seeing state and local governments base their actions on those of the federal government. When a federal official uses a personal email account to transact government business, state and local officials often feel justified in doing so as well; conversely when the federal Congress acts to make FOIA processing faster and access to information more robust, hopefully the state governments will follow suit.

That’s why it is in your best interest to let your Senators know that they should support HR 653 or similar legislation, demanding that Senate leadership devote floor time to this issue and voting in favor of these reforms when that occurs.

Please contact me at or 703-812-0462 if you have any questions.