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Patrick L.
Democrat VT

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  • FOIA Improvement Act of 2015

    by Senator Patrick J. Leahy

    Posted on 2016-03-15

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    LEAHY. Mr. President, I thank the senior Senator from Iowa for his remarks. As he knows, I have worked for years on improving FOIA along with my friend, the senior Senator from Texas. We are celebrating Sunshine Week, a time to pay tribute to 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.

    We are also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act, FOIA, our Nation's premier transparency law. I was actually at the National Archives yesterday, and I looked at the actual bill signed into law in 1966 by then-President Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and Speaker John McCormack, all who were here long before I was. I was thinking that, 50 years ago, the Freedom of Information Act became the foundation on which all our sunshine and transparency policies rest, so 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. He asked all Federal agencies to adopt a ``presumption of openness'' when considering the release of government information under FOIA. That follows the spirit of FOIA put into place by President Clinton, repealed by President Bush, and reinstated as one of President Obama's first acts in office, but I think all of us felt we should put the force of law behind the presumption of openness so that the next President, whomever he or she might be, cannot change that without going back to Congress. Congress must establish a transparency standard that will remain for future administrations to follow--and that is what our bill does. We should not 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. I do not think my friend, the senior Senator from Texas, will object if I mention that in our discussions we have both said words to the effect that we need FOIA, whether it is a Democratic or Republican administration. I do not care who controls the administration. When they do things they think are great, they will release a sheath of press releases about them. However, it is FOIA that lets us know when they are not doing things so well. The government works better if every administration is held to the same 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, which Senator Cornyn and I wrote, passed the Senate unanimously. The House failed to take it up. So as the new Congress came in, to show we are bipartisan with a change from Democratic leadership to Republican leadership, Senator Cornyn and I moved quickly to reintroduce our legislation in the new Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved our bill in February 2015. Sometimes it is hard for the Senate Judiciary Committee to unanimously agree that the sun rises in the east, but on this issue, we came together. Our bill has been awaiting Senate action for over a year. I urge its swift passage today. I want the House to take it up. I want the President to sign it into law. I am proud to stand here with my good friend, the senior Senator from Texas.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER (Ms. Ayotte). The Senator from Texas.

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