10.20.09

Leahy-Authored Open Government Provision Set To Become Law

WASHINGTON – Legislation authored by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that will strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was approved by the Senate Tuesday, and is set to become law.  Leahy introduced the OPEN FOIA Act earlier this year, and pushed for its inclusion in the 2010 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, which was passed by the Senate by a vote of 79-19.  The House of Representatives has already passed the bill, clearing the way for President Obama to sign it into law.

Leahy introduced the OPEN FOIA Act in March.  The OPEN FOIA Act requires Congress to explicitly and clearly state its intention to provide for a statutory exemption to FOIA in new legislative proposals.  Leahy is a longtime advocate of open, transparent government, and has been a leader in Congress in pushing for reforms to update and strengthen FOIA.

“The Freedom of Information Act has served as perhaps the most important Federal law to protect the public's right to know for more than four decades,” said Leahy.  “The OPEN FOIA Act will help to ensure that FOIA remains a meaningful tool to help future generations of Americans access Government information.”

Last month, Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, held a FOIA oversight hearing, where open government advocates testified about the need for more transparency in the legislative process for creating statutory exemptions to FOIA and renewed vigilance in protecting the public’s right to know.  Leahy was also presented with a certificate of appreciation for “for his work on behalf of open and transparent government through his modernization, defense, and oversight of the Freedom of Information Act.”  More than 40 open government organizations joined together to recognize Leahy’s work to strengthen FOIA, including the Vermont Press Association, and the Vermont Coalition for Open Government.

The OPEN FOIA Act will become law when President Obama signs the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act.

Leahy is the co-author of the OPEN Government Act, which made the first significant reforms to FOIA in more than a decade.  The OPEN Government Act was signed into law on December 31, 2007.  Leahy was installed in the Freedom Of Information Act Hall of Fame in 1996.

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Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy,
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On Final Passage of the OPEN FOIA Act
October 20, 2009

MR. PRESIDENT.  I commend the Senate for enacting the Leahy-Cornyn OPEN FOIA Act – a commonsense bill to promote more openness regarding statutory exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) – as part of the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, H.R. 2892.   This FOIA reform measure builds upon the work that Senator Cornyn and I began several years ago to reinvigorate and strengthen FOIA by enacting the first major reforms to that law in more than a decade.

The Freedom of Information Act has served as perhaps the most important Federal law to protect the public's right to know for more than four decades.  The OPEN FOIA Act will help to ensure that FOIA remains a meaningful tool to help future generations of Americans access Government information.

The OPEN FOIA Act will make certain that when Congress provides for a statutory exemption to FOIA in new legislation, Congress states its intention to do so explicitly and clearly.  In recent years, we have witnessed a growing number of so-called “FOIA (b)(3) exemptions”  in proposed legislation – often in very ambiguous terms – to the detriment of the American public’s right to know.

During a recent FOIA oversight hearing held by the Judiciary Committee, the President and CEO of The Associated Press, Tom Curley, testified that legislative exemptions to FOIA “constitute a very large black hole in our open records law.”  The Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups dedicated to improving government transparency, has identified approximately 250 different statutory exemptions to FOIA that are used by Federal agencies to deny American’s FOIA requests.  This is an alarming statistic that should concern all of us, regardless of party affiliation or ideology.  

By enacting the OPEN FOIA Act, Congress has taken an important step towards shining more light on the process of creating legislative exemptions to FOIA, so that our Government will be more open and accountable to the American people.  I thank Senators Lieberman, Graham and Cornyn, and Representative Price, for working with me on this measure.  I also thank the distinguished Chairmen and Ranking Members of the Senate and House Appropriations Committees – Senators Inouye and Cochran and Representatives Obey and Lewis – for their support of this open government measure.

President Obama – who supported the OPEN FOIA Act when he was in the Senate – has demonstrated his commitment to enacting this measure, as have the many FOIA, open government and media organizations that have tirelessly supported this measure since it was first introduced in 2005, including OpenTheGovernmnet.org, the Sunshine in Government Initiative, the National Security Archive and the American Civil Liberties Union.

I have said many times before -- during both Democratic and Republican administrations -- that freedom of information is neither a Democratic issue, nor a Republican issue.  It is an American issue.   I commend the Congress for taking this significant step to reinvigorate FOIA and I urge the President to promptly sign this provision into law.

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