Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On Presidential Signing of S. 337, the FOIA Improvement Act of 2015

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On Presidential Signing of S. 337, the FOIA Improvement Act of 2015

June 30, 2016

The Freedom of Information Act has been our premier transparency law for the last 50 years. As we recognize its 50th birthday on July 4th, we have even more reason to celebrate. That is because today, President Obama signed into law the bipartisan FOIA Improvement Act which ushers in the most significant reforms of FOIA since its enactment in 1966.

And it is fitting that FOIA, our nation’s premier transparency law, shares its birthday with our republic itself. After all, a government of, by, and for the people cannot be one that is hidden from them. With President Obama’s ink drying on our FOIA Improvement Act, two branches of government have reaffirmed in one voice our commitment to protecting and expanding the American people’s right to know.

I am particularly proud of today’s bill signing. I introduced the FOIA Improvement Act two years ago, working with Senator Cornyn in a bipartisan manner to bring FOIA into the 21st century. We worked hard to build a broad, bipartisan coalition in support of our legislation which twice passed the Senate unanimously. This year, finally, the House passed our bill and now it is the law of the land.

What makes FOIA special is that it empowers anyone to request and obtain records from the Federal government, unless those records fall under nine narrow exemptions. This is a hallmark of FOIA cherished by journalists, watchdogs, and interested citizens alike. The FOIA Improvement Act brings the FOIA process, which can be long and arduous, even closer to the people. It creates a singular online portal through which the public can submit FOIA requests and requires the proactive online disclosure of frequently requested records. By updating FOIA for the digital age, our law puts more government information than ever before online in a format familiar and accessible to the American people.

But perhaps most importantly, our bill codifies President Obama’s historic 2009 memorandum requiring agencies to follow a “Presumption of Openness” when considering the release of government information under FOIA. This policy was first put into place by President Clinton but then repealed by President Bush. President Obama reinstated it as one of his first acts in office. By codifying the “Presumption of Openness,” we ensure that all future administrations operate under the presumption that government information – except in narrowly tailored circumstances – belongs in the hands of the people.

Our law also provides the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) – the government’s FOIA watchdog created through the Leahy-Cornyn OPEN Government Act of 2007 – additional authority to operate more independently and communicate freely with Congress about FOIA compliance throughout our agencies.

For five decades, FOIA has brought sunshine into the halls of power. But as times change and technologies evolve, so too must our nation’s premier transparency law. That is why, over the years, I have joined with Senator Cornyn to pass needed updates to FOIA. In 1996, at the beginning of the digital age, President Bill Clinton signed the Electronic FOIA Amendments into law, requiring agencies to maintain documents in an electronic format and distribute them digitally. In 2007, our OPEN Government Act was enacted to ensure that FOIA treats bloggers and other alternative journalists as members of the media and create a modernized tracking system for FOIA requests. In 2009, we passed the OPEN FOIA Act to ensure any attempted legislative carve-outs from FOIA were explicitly labeled as such, so that our Nation’s sunshine law could not be chipped away in the shadows. And now, we build on these efforts with the enactment of the FOIA Improvement Act.

Our founders had the revolutionary vision to create a government of, by, and for the people. Today we have helped strengthen that ideal. Fifty years from now, on FOIA’s centennial anniversary, the next generation will look back at this moment and gauge our commitment to the founding principles of our democracy. Let them see that we continued striving for a “more perfect union” by strengthening the pillar of transparency that holds our government accountable to “We the People.”

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