President Barack Obama signed legislation that will bolster the Freedom of Information Act by establishing the presumption of government openness as law.
The bill, the FOIA Improvement Act, passed Congress with bipartisan support after years of deliberation. Under the new reform, government agencies would have the expectation of disclosing information when requested, and would have to prove that certain documents should not be subject to public record.
The bill also requires that documents that date back 25 years be turned over without argument and that records requested by several different applications be submitted for online publication.
“Congress -- on a bipartisan basis -- has provided the tools -- legislation -- to codify some of the reforms we’ve already made and to expand more of these reforms so that government is more responsive,” Obama said, according to Politico.
“And I am very proud of all the work we’ve done to try to make government more open and responsive, but I know that people haven’t always been satisfied with the speed with which they’re getting responses and requests,” Obama continued. “Hopefully this is going to help and be an important initiative for us to continue on the reform path.”
Obama signed the bill on June 30, nearly 50 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the FOIA into law on July 4, 1966. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who had championed the reform for years, noted the historical significance in a statement.
“It is fitting that the original Freedom of Information Act shares its birthday with our republic itself, and that we celebrate it by ushering in the most significant reforms to our nation’s premier transparency law in 50 years,” Leahy said.
The reform bill does not fix all of the problems currently government disclosure. It does not provide new funding for FOIA requests, a process that is already jammed by an abundance of requests that has left the bureaucracy grinding out records at a slow trickle.
“One could say, looking at the glass, that it is half empty,” Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, who sponsored the bill, told The Atlantic. “But government has to move in a direction and be judged based on that direction. Congress passing FOIA [reform] moved us in the correct direction.”
Senior analyst Alexander Howard of transparency group Sunlight Foundation observed that the bill is “not the revolutionary reform that I think some people would like to see. But it’s codifying a lot of evolutionary improvements the administration has suggested so those existing wins are baked in.”
FOIA project director Nate Jones of the George Washington University’s National Security Archive, who had lobbied for reforming FOIA for years, pointed out that Obama had issued a directive similar to the Improvement Act on his first day in office and that signing the bill was the first time he had concretely acted on his promise.
“Hopefully his signing of this law will reacquaint him with the values he championed on his first full day in office and spur him to burnish his FOIA legacy during his last months in office,” Jones told Vice News.