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Elijah C.
Democrat MD 7

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  • FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2015

    by Representative Elijah E. Cummings

    Posted on 2016-01-11

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    CUMMINGS. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

    Mr. Speaker, I rise in strong support of H.R. 653, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act.

    I want to start by thanking Representative Darrell Issa for working with me on this legislation. We first introduced the FOIA Act in March 2013. The bill before us today is the product of 3 years of work--hard work--feedback, negotiation, and perseverance.

    I also want to thank the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Jason Chaffetz, for his work on this bill and his strong support for bringing it to the House floor today.

    I would say that this is a bipartisan effort, but it is more than that. We actually worked very, very hard together, all of us, to make this happen. If there was any case where we had to use this term of not moving to common ground but moving to higher ground, it would be this legislation.

    Open government advocates--journalists, editorial boards, and everyday citizens--who support this bill also deserve a tremendous amount of gratitude.

    The FOIA Act would strengthen the cornerstone of our open government laws and the Freedom of Information Act. This legislation builds on the historic work of the Obama administration, which I believe will go down in history as the most transparent administration to date. The bill would codify the presumption of openness standard that President Obama put in place in a memo issued on his first day in office.

    The bill would require agencies to identify specific identifiable harm to an interest protected by exemption unless disclosure is prohibited by law. This provision would not require agencies to disclose classified information, it would not require agencies to disclose anything they are prohibited from disclosing by law, and it would not remove any of FOIA's existing time exemptions. It would, however, put the burden on agencies where it should be: to justify keeping government information secret.

    The bill would also put a 25-year sunset exemption 5 of FOIA--the deliberative process exemption--and limit the scope of records that agencies could withhold under that exemption. It would modernize FOIA by requiring the Office of Management and Budget to create a central portal to allow FOIA requests to any agency through one Web site.

    The Office of Government Information Services, the FOIA ombudsman created by Congress in 2007, would become more independent, which is very important under this bill, because that office would be allowed to submit testimony and reports directly to Congress without going through political review.

    This bill is coming to the floor with an amendment that makes a number of changes, and many of them proposed by Chairman Chaffetz. Some of these additions include requiring agencies to provide each FOIA requester with a contact name and information for an agency employee who can provide information on the status of the request. This is so very, very important.

    Our bill has widespread support. A coalition of 47 open government groups sent a letter in support of this bill on February 5, 2015, that said: ``Congress must act this year to ensure that FOIA stays current with people's need to access government information and resilient in the face of attempts to subvert that access.'' {time} 1730 Numerous editorial boards have written, urging Congress to pass FOIA reform legislation.

    A New York Times editorial from February 2015 reads: ``This is a rare chance to log a significant bipartisan accomplishment in the public interest.'' A USA Today editorial in March 2015 called for the enactment of this bill's reforms.

    A Los Angeles Times editorial read that this legislation and a similar bill in the Senate ``deserves to be passed.'' This is a movement called Fix FOIA by 50. That movement is aimed at getting H.R. 653 enacted before the 50th anniversary of FOIA in July of this year.

    An online clearinghouse for the movement includes stories from journalists about why FOIA is critical to their work and why this legislation must be enacted.

    It is important to note that, even with the enactment of this legislation, the work of Congress must continue.

    Agency FOIA staff are being asked to do more than ever before. From 2009 to [[Page H254]] 2014, the overall number of FOIA requests submitted to Federal agencies increased by 28 percent with new records set in each of the past 4 years in a row. The total number of FOIA personnel, however, decreased by about 4 percent. Congress must give these agencies more resources.

    Again, I thank Congressman Issa for all of his hard work. I know that he has been on this bill for a long time and has tried to make sure it gets passed. Again, I want to thank both staffs for working so hard.

    Since Chairman Chaffetz became chairman, we have had two meetings, and I know our staffs have had numerous meetings and have hammered out the details to make a very good bill a better bill. I want to thank them.

    I urge my colleagues to vote for transparency and for the American people by voting ``yes'' on this legislation.

    Mr. Speaker, I reserve the balance of my time.

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