02.14.08

Leahy: FOIA Ombudsman Belongs At Archives, Not DOJ

WASHINGTON (Thursday, Feb. 14, 2008) – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Thursday called for full funding of a key office authorized by newly enacted legislation establishing an independent ombudsman to resolve Freedom of Information Act disputes between FOIA requestors and the federal government. 

In his Fiscal Year 2009 budget proposal sent to Congress last week, President Bush proposed shifting the functions of the newly authorized Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) to the Department of Justice.  A bill sponsored by Leahy and by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), which was passed unanimously by both the Senate and House of Representatives last year and signed by the President on Dec. 31, expressly authorizes funding for OGIS through the independent National Archives and Records Administration.  The President’s budget proposal, if left unchanged and approved by the Congress, would move the functions of the office to the Department of Justice, spawning potential conflicts of interest for the agency charged with litigating FOIA disputes.

Two weeks before the budget proposal was sent to Capitol Hill, Leahy blew the whistle on the administration’s plans to move the office. 

“Such a move is not only contrary to the express intent of the Congress, but it is also contrary to the very purpose of this legislation -- to ensure the timely and fair resolution of American’s FOIA requests,” Leahy said on Jan. 24.

Last week, Leahy and Cornyn, the authors of the OPEN Government Act, sent a letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Jim Nussle signaling their disapproval of the provision in the budget proposal.  They asked that OMB support Congress’s intent to establish and fully fund OGIS at the National Archives.  Also last week, more than 40 open government organizations wrote to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee urging that Committee to appropriate funds to establish OGIS at the National Archives.

 

In a statement Thursday, Leahy called for Congress to fully fund OGIS in the National Archives and to beat back the administration’s proposal.

 

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy,
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
Calling For Full Funding Of The Office Of Government Information Services 
At The National Archives
February 14, 2008

MR. PRESIDENT, with the enactment of bipartisan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reform legislation late last year, Congress demanded and won more openness and accountability in monitoring the activities of our Government.  But, regrettably, just weeks after this historic open government legislation was signed into law, there are troubling signs from the Bush administration regarding how this law will be enforced. 

 

Last week, the President buried a provision in the administration’s FY 2009 budget proposal that would move the functions of the new Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), which was created under the OPEN Government Act, from the independent National Archives and Records Administration to the Department of Justice.  The President’s proposal is not only contrary to the express intent of the Congress, but contrary to the very purpose of this legislation -- to ensure the timely and fair resolution of American’s FOIA requests.

 

The Office of Government Information Services was established to, among other things, mediate FOIA disputes between Federal agencies and FOIA requestors, review and evaluate agency FOIA compliance and house the newly established FOIA ombudsman.  When Senator Cornyn and I drafted the OPEN Government Act, we intentionally placed this critical office in the National Archives, so that OGIS would be free from the influence of the Federal agency that litigates FOIA disputes – the Department of Justice.  We also placed OGIS in the apolitical National Archives to enhance this office’s independence, so that all Americans can be confident that their FOIA requests would be addressed openly and fairly.

 

Given the clear intent of Congress to establish OGIS as an independent office in the National Archives, the President’s budget proposal should not -- and cannot -- go unchallenged.  What’s more, given the Justice Department’s own abysmal record on FOIA compliance -- a recent Bureau of National Affairs Daily Report for Executives article found that the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy is burdened by increasing FOIA backlogs -- it is simply unfathomable that this agency would be entrusted with overseeing the processing of American’s FOIA requests.

 

When the Congress unanimously passed the OPEN Government Act just a couple months ago, Democrats and Republicans alike joined together in promising the American people a more open and transparent government.  I intend to work to ensure that that this was not an empty promise, but one that will be honored and fulfilled. 

 

I call on all Members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers, to join with me to ensure that the Office of Government Information Services is promptly established and fully funded within the National Archives.  The American people have waited for more than a decade for this office and for the other historic FOIA reforms contained in the OPEN Government Act. They should not be forced to wait any longer. 

 

I ask that a copy of a letter from a coalition of more than 40 different open government organizations that strongly oppose moving the Office of Government Information Services to the Department of Justice be printed in the record following my statement.

 

Congress must work to beat back the administration’s ill-advised attempts to undermine the intent of Congress in a bill that this President signed into law.  In the coming weeks and months, I will be working with other advocates of FOIA in the Senate to do just that.

 

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