Three-legged pigeons are rare, but only slightly more so than unanimous votes in the House of Representatives on major legislation. Even so, the House voted 410-0 earlier this week to approve the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2014. The bill is the joint handiwork of House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, and ranking minority member Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat. Issa and Cummings have gone hammer-and-tongs at each other on numerous occasions in recent years, but the importance of government transparency is something on which they very much see eye to eye.
The FOIA was first adopted in 1966, and it is the essential building block in making sure every citizen has access to all federal documents, subject only to reasonable exceptions like national security, protection of commercial secrets and personal privacy. The law is too often followed more in spirit than in letter by federal officials, but millions of FOIA requests are fulfilled every year. And they often make it possible for taxpayers to know things that are essential to their ability to hold public officials accountable.
|The FOIA often makes it possible for taxpayers to know things that are essential to their ability to hold public officials accountable.|
The Washington Examiner's senior investigative reporter Luke Rosiak provides an excellent example of this process Wednesday with his story about civil servants in the Department of the Treasury defrauding taxpayers of thousands of hours of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars in pay and benefits. Rosiak used the FOIA to obtain copies of unpublished investigative reports by the Treasury Department's inspector general.
Similarly, Examiner White House correspondent Susan Crabtree used the FOIA to obtain copies of documents that revealed a senior Department of Health and Human Services official was so upset by White House “disarray” just days before the healthcare.gov launch that he said a “come to Jesus” meeting was needed. Hundreds more vital stories made possible by the FOIA will be written in 2014 by Examiner reporters and journalists working for other media outlets, online and off.
The most important reforms contained in the Issa/Cummings bill include a provision authorizing a pilot program for a central federal web portal capable of processing all FOIA requests. Requestors will be able to submit FOIA requests in one place, then track responses by the department or agency processing it. The reforms also enhance the authority of the Office of Government Information Services. According to the committee, Issa and Cummings hope that “by giving more independence and responsibility to OGIS, we are empowering a non-partisan, non-political office to oversee FOIA compliance.” The OGIS is also elevated to an oversight role with the Department of Justice through a newly created federal FOIA Council.
Finally, the bill creates within the National Archives and Records Administration an Open Government Advisory Committee that is intended to provide an official forum for “an ongoing dialogue for FOIA reforms.” Individually, such reforms might not seem significant, but taken together they represent an important step forward in fulfilling the full promise of the FOIA as a powerful tool to shine sorely needed light in the dark places of the federal government.