House renews bid to improve gov't response on info requests

AP News
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Posted: Mar 25, 2015 12:13 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — A House committee is renewing efforts to make government agencies more responsive to freedom-of-information requests.

The House unanimously passed a similar effort last year. But objections by Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia kept it from becoming law.

The House oversight committee on Wednesday endorsed a bill, by voice vote, that would make it harder for federal agencies to delay or reject requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. Agencies would have to show that the requested disclosure is barred by law or would cause specific harm to interests protected by the law.

Rockefeller has retired from the Senate. In 2014 he cited concerns that companies might use time-consuming information requests to delay investigations into their conduct.

The House bill is sponsored by GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who chairs the oversight committee, and by the panel's top Democrat. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland.

Cummings said the measure has "widespread support" in Congress, and "would be a landmark reform of the law."

The Associated Press is a member of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, which supports the legislation.

A recent AP analysis found that the Obama administration set a record for censoring government files or denying access to them last year under the FOIA law. The government took longer to turn over files when it provided any. It said more regularly that it couldn't find documents. And it refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy, the analysis concluded.

The Sunshine in Government Initiative says the Chaffetz-Cummings bill would make the government "more open and accountable to the American public." It would make clear that the Office of Government Information Services can speak without first seeking input from other agencies, such as the Office of Budget and Management.

It would write into law a policy that directs federal agencies to start considering a FOIA request without assuming it will be denied. And it calls for more technologically modern handling of FOIA requests.