March 14, 2016
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee
135 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Senator Patrick Leahy
Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee
437 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Senator John Cornyn
Member, Senate Judiciary Committee
517 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Re: Endorsement of Immediate Passage of FOIA Improvement Act of 2016
Dear Senators Grassley, Leahy and Cornyn:
We, the undersigned organizations and individuals, write to express our thanks for your authorship of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 (S.337) and reaffirm our support for the bipartisan and bicameral movement toward reforming the Freedom of Information Act. We urge the earliest possible passage of S. 337 to finally enable the enhanced public oversight of government critically needed to ensure its accountability to the people.
The FOIA Improvement Act has received overwhelming support on both sides of the aisle and from the openness community, and is virtually identical to legislation that the Senate passed by unanimous consent in 2014 (S.2520). Thanks to months of negotiation and hard work by your and other key Congressional staffs, we believe that substantive concerns raised by some Senators have been addressed. We therefore respectfully urge you to press for it to move to a floor vote without any further changes that would jeopardize its broad backing.
For nearly 50 years, the FOIA has empowered the public with the access to information essential for democratic governance and accountability, and has been used as a critical tool used to make the public aware of countless acts of waste, fraud, and abuse. The law is in need of meaningful reform, however, to bring it up to date and to overcome the weight of backlogs, inconsistent proactive disclosure, overbroad exemptions, and outdated technology.
Specifically, the FOIA Improvement Act would strengthen existing law in a number of ways that will significantly improve requestors’ ability to obtain information about government actions and decision- making by amending the FOIA with positive changes. These include:
- Codifying the presumption of openness for future administrations, thereby requiring agencies to disclose information unless there is a foreseeable harm or legal requirement to withhold the information;
- Harnessing technology to improve the FOIA process by requiring agencies to make their disclosed records publicly available in an electronic format. It also would require the creation of a consolidated online request portal, streamlining the FOIA process significantly by allowing the public to submit requests through a single website;
- Ending secrecy for 25-year-old drafts and other internal deliberations not otherwise exempt from disclosure, thereby ensuring that agencies cannot abuse FOIA’s Exemption 5 to withhold historical records that will help the public better understand how a policy was developed;
- Increasing the effectiveness of the FOIA by making the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) more independent.
We make this request during Sunshine Week 2016 (March 13-19), a nationwide initiative to highlight the importance of open government and the imperative of strengthening transparency at all levels of government. We also note that there would be no more appropriate way for Congress to honor the upcoming 50th anniversary of the FOIA on July 4th, 2016, than by passing S. 337 to strengthen the law We stand ready to aid your efforts to ensure that the nation can celebrate FOIA’s 50th anniversary with stronger and better statute, one that enhances the public’s capacity to hold its officials accountable and to understand the workings of our democracy.
Thank you again for your commitment to a strong FOIA, and to open and accountable government. To consult further about these issues, please contact Patrice McDermott, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment.org, at 202.332.6736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)
American Association of Law Libraries American Civil Liberties Union
American Libraries Association
American Society of Journalists and Authors American Society of News Editors
Association of Alternative Newsmedia Association of American Publishers
Association of Research Libraries
Appeal for Justice
Bill of Rights Defense Committee
Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists
Campaign for Accountability
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington
Government Accountability Project International
Make Your Laws, Inc
Media Freedom Foundation
National Coalition Against Censorship
National Security Archive
National Taxpayers Union
New America’s Open Technology Institute
People for the American Way
Project on Government Oversight
Restore The Fourth, Inc.
The Niskanen Center
Reclaim The Records
Society of Professional Journalists
Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse
Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse X-Lab
Jeremy Bigwood, Independent Researcher
Bob Ortega, Honolulu Civil Beat
Prof. Glenn Muschert, Miami University
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