On 45th anniversary of public right to know law, Leahy asks House to pass Faster FOIA Act

As FOIA Anniversary Approaches, Leahy Urges House To Pass Faster FOIA Act

WASHINGTON (Wednesday, June 29, 2011) – As the nation prepares to mark the 45th anniversary of the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is urging the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the bipartisan Faster FOIA Act, which won unanimous approval in the Senate in May.

“On July 4th, the Nation will celebrate the 45th anniversary of the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act,” said Leahy. “Today, the United States government is more committed than in any time in our history to making and keeping government open and accountable to the people.”

Earlier this year, Leahy introduced the Faster FOIA Act with Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas). Leahy and Cornyn have been longtime partners in promoting and strengthening FOIA, the nation’s premier open government law. The Faster FOIA Act will establish an advisory panel to examine agency backlogs in processing FOIA requests and provide recommendations to Congress for legislative and administrative action to enhance agency responses to such requests. The panel will be tasked with examining whether the system for charging fees and granting fee waivers under FOIA should be reformed in order to reduce delays in processing fee requests, as well as identifying any other methods to reduce the delay in the processing of FOIA requests.

“According to the Department of Justice’s Annual FOIA Report for FY 2010, more than 69,000 FOIA requests remain backlogged across our Government,” Leahy said. “These delays are simply unacceptable. On the occasion of this 45th anniversary of FOIA, I urge the House to act on this important bill so that the Commission on Freedom of Information Act Processing Delays can begin its important work.”

Leahy and Cornyn have teamed together in the past to author legislation to make the federal government more open and transparent to the people it represents. In past years, they authored the OPEN Government Act, which was signed into law in 2007 and made the first major reforms to FOIA in more than a decade. In 2009, Leahy and Cornyn authored the OPEN FOIA Act, which mandated greater transparency for legislative exemptions to FOIA. That bill was signed into law in October 2009.

Leahy was installed in the Freedom of Information Act Hall of Fame in 1996. In 2009, he was awarded the Robert Vaughn FOIA Legend Award.

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Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),

Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,

On The 45th Anniversary Of The Enactment Of The Freedom Of Information Act

June 29, 2011

On July 4th, the Nation will celebrate the 45th anniversary of the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Now in its fifth decade, FOIA remains an indispensable tool for shedding light on government policies and government abuses. This premier open government law has helped to guarantee the public’s “right to know” for generations of Americans.

Today, the United States Government is more committed than in any time in our history to making and keeping Government open and accountable to the people. As one of his first official acts, President Obama signed an historic Presidential Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act, which restored the presumption of disclosure for all Government information. I applaud President Obama for his commitment to FOIA and I will continue to work closely with his administration to ensure that our Government fulfills both the letter and spirit of this remarkable memorandum.

While the Obama administration has made significant progress in improving the FOIA process, large backlogs remain a major roadblock to public access to information. A report released by the National Security Archive found that only about half of the Federal agencies surveyed have taken concrete steps to update their FOIA policies in light of the President’s reforms. According to the Department of Justice’s Annual FOIA Report for FY 2010, more than 69,000 FOIA requests remain backlogged across our Government. These delays are simply unacceptable.

To address these concerns, in May, the Senate unanimously passed the Faster FOIA Act of 2011 — a bill to establish a bipartisan commission to examine the root causes of agency delays in processing FOIA requests. Senator Cornyn and I first introduced this bill in 2005, because we were concerned about the growing problem of excessive FOIA delays within our Federal agencies. During the intervening years, this problem has not gone away. That is why in 2010, we reintroduced this bill and the Senate unanimously passed it. Unfortunately, the House of Representatives did not take action. After the Judiciary Committee’s hearing on FOIA, which was held during the annual Sunshine Week in March, we reintroduced the Faster FOIA Act yet again — with the hope that the Congress would finally enact this good government legislation. I am pleased that the Senate has done its part to achieve this goal. On the occasion of this 45th anniversary of FOIA, I urge the House to act on this important bill so that the Commission on Freedom of Information Act Processing Delays can begin its important work.

I thank Senator Cornyn for his work on this bill and for his leadership on this issue. I also commend and thank the many open government and FOIA advocacy groups that have supported our efforts to bolster FOIA, including OpenTheGovernment.org, the Project on Government Oversight and the Sunshine in Government Initiative.

The right to know is a cornerstone of our democracy. Without it, citizens are kept in the dark about key policy decisions that directly affect their lives. Without open government, citizens cannot make informed choices at the ballot box. And once eroded, the right to know is hard to win back.

The House Committee Report that accompanied the Freedom of Information Act in 1966 stated that “it is vital to our way of life to reach a workable balance between the right of the public to know and the need of the Government to keep information in confidence to the extent necessary without permitting indiscriminate secrecy. The right of the individual to be able to find out how his Government is operating can be just as important to him as his right to privacy and his right to confide in his Government. This bill strikes a balance considering all these interests.” As we reflect upon the celebration of another FOIA anniversary, we in Congress must reaffirm the commitment to open and transparent government captured by these time-proven words.

Open government is neither a Democratic issue, nor a Republican issue – it is truly an American value and virtue that we all must uphold. It is in this bipartisan spirit that I join Americans from across the political spectrum in celebrating the 45th anniversary of FOIA and all that this law has come to symbolize about our vibrant democracy.

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