03.11.09

Critical FOIA Office Receives Funding In Omnibus

WASHINGTON (Wednesday, March 11, 2009) – A new office to mediate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) disputes has received key funding necessary to establish its operations, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Wednesday.  The omnibus appropriations bill passed by the Senate Tuesday night includes $1 million to establish the new Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) in the National Archives and Records Administration.

Congress mandated the establishment of OGIS in the OPEN Government Act of 2007, which Leahy authored with Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas).  The bill was signed into law on December 31, 2007, but the National Archives lacked the needed funding to establish OGIS.  The Office of Government Information Services is designed to mediate inter-agency FOIA disputes, review agency compliance with FOIA, and house the newly created FOIA ombudsman.  Leahy chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which considered the legislation before it was adopted by the full Senate.  He is also a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and pushed to include funding for OGIS in the omnibus appropriations bill.

“Establishing this new FOIA office within the National Archives is essential to reversing the troubling trend of lax FOIA compliance and excessive government secrecy during the past eight years,” said Leahy.  “The OGIS will also play a critical role in meeting the goals of President Obama’s new directive on FOIA.”

The omnibus appropriations bill also includes funding to reconstitute the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which was established at the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission to help protect privacy and civil liberties.  Appointments to the board’s five positions lapsed, however, and the Bush administration delayed in naming new nominees to allow the board’s operations to continue.

“Now that this initial funding is in place, I hope the President will promptly name qualified nominees so that the Board can carry out its important work,” said Leahy.

The funding for these important open government offices comes one week before the fifth annual Sunshine Week, a national observance spotlighting the importance of open government.

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Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On Open Government Provisions in the Omnibus Appropriations Bill

As a longtime advocate of greater transparency in our government, I am pleased that the Omnibus Appropriations bill includes several key provisions to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), and to protect Americans’ privacy and civil liberties. 

The Omnibus Appropriations bill provides $1 million in funding to establish the new Office of Government Information Services (“OGIS”) in the National Archives and Records Administration.  When Congress enacted the Leahy-Cornyn OPEN Government Act of 2007, which made the first major reforms to FOIA in more than a decade, a key component of that bill was the creation of the OGIS to mediate FOIA disputes, review agency compliance with FOIA, and house a newly created FOIA ombudsman.  Establishing this new FOIA office within the National Archives is essential to reversing the troubling trend of lax FOIA compliance and excessive government secrecy during the past eight years.  The OGIS will also play a critical role in meeting the goals of President Obama’s new directive on FOIA.  I thank Senators Cornyn, Inouye and Cochran for their support of funding for this critical new office.  I also thank the many FOIA and open government groups, including OpenTheGovernment.org, the Sunshine in Government Initiative and the National Security Archive, who have advocated tirelessly for a fully-operational OGIS.

The bill also includes much-needed funding to reconstitute the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.  When Congress enacted the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act in 2004, it implemented a 9/11 Commission recommendation to establish an independent board to help protect Americans’ privacy and civil liberties.  Since then, I have worked hard to make sure that the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has the resources and personnel to fulfill this important mission. 

During the last Congress, I worked with Senators Lieberman and Durbin to further strengthen this Board in the 9/11 reform bill.  Unfortunately, the last administration left the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board with no members or staff.  The Board is too important for us to let it fall by the wayside.  The funding in the Omnibus bill will help to reconstitute the Board so it can get back to work.  Now that this initial funding is in place, I hope the President will promptly name qualified nominees so that the Board can carry-out its important work. 

Both of these provisions will help to make our government more open and accountable to the American people.  That is something that Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike can -- and should -- celebrate.  Again, I commend the bill’s lead sponsors and the President for their demonstrated commitment to open and transparent government.

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