FOIA Upgrade at 50 – More Than Just a Facelift? | Sara Christiansen

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Clip art: http://www.tyronetownship.us/Services/FreedomofInformationAct(FOIA).aspx

The long-awaited and highly anticipated changes to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) are finally here – but are they a true upgrade or merely another facelift to a half-century old piece of legislation? Only time will tell. Here’s what we know, thus far:

A bipartisan Congressional body pushed through FOIA reformation legislation earlier this year, in order to present a unified bill for President Obama’s signature. H.R. 653 was passed by the House of Representatives on January 11, 2016. S. 337 was passed by the Senate on March 15. The House passed S. 337 on June 13, and moved the bill for presidential signature. The President signed S. 337 on June 30.

So what’s changed in the FOIA? The biggest improvements to the law include the following:

  1. A single portal will now accept FOIA requests for all federal agencies.
  2. Agencies have been directed to act with a “presumption of openness” rather than secrecy.
  3. Federal agencies may only secure a 25-year limit on confidential internal documentation.

So what does it all mean?

A single-portal acceptance policy may eliminate confusion in submissions, but will it improve FOIA response times? According to the FOIA Project, response times in 2015 the U.S. Air Force is the only federal agency that reported a decrease in their average response times from 2014 – boasting a diminished 161 days to responds to requests rather than 165 days a year earlier. No party balloons for that unimpressive feat.

Conversely, the FOIA Project reports that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Federal Work Study (FWS) program actually increased their response time by 50% in 2015. The study shows that requests made to the U.S. Navy held the longest average wait time of 354 days. Are new personnel being tasked to handle FOIA responses under this new law’s legislation? Not hardly. Can we expect a single portal to improve responses? Not likely. Response times are so poor that the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s recent report entitled FOIA Is Broken, summed the situation up in a single sentence by stating “The biggest barrier of all: delay, delay, delay.”

And what about the direction to act in a more open manner? Let us not forget that the president issued the exact same direction to his administration in 2009 when he stated, “[The] Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.”

Perhaps the only change that presses below the surface of the paper the law was written on is the directive to afford access to previously afforded 25-year old information. Will the same be granted to the Obama administration’s confidential internal documents in 25 years? One must wonder if the president who’s been dubbed the least transparent in history – with a record 130,000 unanswered FOIA requests as of January 2016 – is secretly hoping this directive will change in another 25 years.

As for whether the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 is really an upgrade or not, one must say that any reforms are appreciated.

In this case, however, the facelift may be short-lived – with the real wrinkles appearing just around the corner.

For now, we will celebrate the victory – no matter how droopy it may appear to be.