A repair to support the public’s right to know

South Bend Tribune

On the same day that House lawmakers passed a bill aimed at repairing the Freedom of Information Act, they released a report outlining why a fix is so badly needed.

According to the report — released by the House Committee on Government Reform — long waits, excessive fees and overuse of exemptions are breaking the FOIA process.

Offered up are examples of a request for Department of Defense training manuals that took a decade to answer and only partially at that; the Drug Enforcement Agency wanting to charge $1 million for a document request; and correspondence so heavily redacted from the Federal Communications Commission that the paper is entirely black.

The FOIA process is “broken,” the report concludes.

A bipartisan bill that aims to reduce the excessive use of exemptions that allow agencies to withhold documents from the public easily passed in the House last week. H.R. 653 also would speed up responses to requests that sometimes drag on for years.

Among the provisions in the bill, now headed to the Senate, include scaling back agencies’ powers to claim certain documents are privileged and hence can be withheld and bolstering the role of the Office of Government Information Services, which reviews FOIA practices.

“The reforms contained in the bill will significantly improve the American public’s ability to exercise their right to access information under the Freedom of Information Act,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Such action is long overdue, as we noted in a comment in support of a similar bill that cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee a year ago. Earlier versions of bills to update the FOIA passed the House and Senate in 2014 but were never reconciled.

It doesn’t help that this issue isn’t on the radar of most citizens. Consider it just one measure of the freedom Americans enjoy that we so easily take it for granted and fail to see when it’s being threatened.

The threats come from both Democratic and Republican administrations, which have disrespected and disregarded FOIA. And so Congress should solve this bipartisan problem — and help support the public’s right to know — with a much-needed update of the Freedom of Information Act.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.