Just in time for Sunshine Week — the annual celebration of open government and transparency — Congress has taken up bipartisan legislation that will strengthen the Freedom of Information Act.
The FOIA Improvement Act of 2015 requires agencies to consider FOIA requests under a “presumption of openness” while restricting the application of exemptions to situations where a specifically identifiable harm could occur.
It recently won an important endorsement from Senate Judiciary chairman Chuck Grassley and unanimous support from his committee.
“The government ought to be accountable to the people, and transparency yields accountability,” Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said in a news release. “This bill takes an important step to stop agencies from hiding behind an exemption solely to protect their public image.”
The bill is supported by many groups, including the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.
“There’s no sensible argument against it,” Danielle Brian, executive director of that group, told The Washington Post.
A similar bill last year seemed poised for passage. It, too, had bipartisan support, but the clock ran out in December after the Senate dithered. This time, there’s no excuse to keep a good bill from becoming law.
The federal Freedom of Information Act, along with similar laws in all 50 states, is based on a simple notion: Government that acts in the people’s name must keep the people informed.
Government business is the people’s business, and there should be only rare circumstances when government information cannot be public.
Missouri residents, for instance, should be able to find out details about what the FBI’s investigations into the Ferguson police force uncovered. Or what the U.S. Department of Agriculture finds during inspections.
Journalists often use FOIA, but it isn’t just — or even mainly — for journalists. It is for the citizens, based on the fundamental understanding that a functioning democracy requires an informed citizenry.
FOIA was signed into law in 1966. It has been amended several times, often to strengthen it in the wake of abuses such as the Watergate scandal or to modernize, as in 1996 when amendments took into account electronic records.
The FOIA Improvement Act appears to be well named. The bill would increase government transparency and citizen access to information. Congress should pass it.