03.15.16

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, Final Passage of S. 337, The FOIA Improvement Act of 2015

Sunshine Week is a time to celebrate one of our nation’s most basic values—the public’s right to know.  Our very democracy is built on the idea that our government should not operate in secret.  James Madison, a staunch defender of open government and whose birthday we celebrate each year during Sunshine Week, wisely noted that for our democracy to succeed, people “must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”  It is only through transparency and access to information that the American people can arm themselves with the information they need to hold our government accountable. 

This year we also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), our nation’s premier transparency law.  First signed into law in 1966 by President Johnson, the Freedom of Information Act is the foundation on which all our sunshine and transparency policies rest.  I can think of no better way to celebrate both Sunshine Week and the 50th Anniversary of FOIA than by passing the FOIA Improvement Act. 

This bipartisan bill, which I coauthored with Senator Cornyn, codifies the principle that President Obama laid out in his 2009 executive order in which he asked all Federal agencies to adopt a “Presumption of Openness” when considering the release of government information under FOIA.  This policy, which embodies the very spirit of FOIA, was first put into place by President Clinton and then repealed by President Bush.  President Obama reinstated it as one of his first acts in office.  By putting the force of law behind the Presumption of Openness, Congress can establish a transparency standard that will remain for future administrations to follow.  We cannot leave it to the next president to decide how open the government should be.  We have to hold all presidents and their administrations accountable to the highest standard. 

The FOIA Improvement Act also provides the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) with additional independence and authority to carry out its work.  The Office of Government and Information Services, created by the Leahy-Cornyn OPEN Government Act in 2007, serves as the FOIA ombudsman to the public and helps mediate disputes between FOIA requesters and agencies.  Our bill will provide OGIS with new tools to help carry out its mission and ensure that OGIS can communicate freely with Congress so we can better evaluate and improve FOIA going forward.  The FOIA Improvement Act will also make FOIA easier to use by establishing an online portal through which the American people can submit FOIA requests, and it will ensure more information is available to the public by requiring that frequently requested records be made available online.

Last Congress the FOIA Improvement Act passed the Senate unanimously, but the House failed to take it up.  Senator Cornyn and I moved quickly to reintroduce our legislation in the new Congress, which the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved in February 2015.  Our bill has been awaiting Senate action for over a year. 

I urge all Senators to support passage of this legislation today, so it can be taken up by the House, and sent to the President to be signed into law this year. 

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