US Senate Panel Delays Markup, Chairman Optimistic

13 November 2014

The US Senate Judiciary Committee Nov. 13 delayed approval of a freedom of information amendments package, but the chairman predicted passage next week.

Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said in a statement issued to reporters:

 “I have worked with Senator Cornyn for months on the FOIA Improvement Act. It has broad bipartisan support, including the support of Ranking Member Grassley.  Because of scheduling challenges in the Senate this Thursday, we are likely to hold the Committee markup off the floor this week. This FOIA bill should be debated in full public view, and so we will hold over our legislation this week so all members and the public can participate in this important debate. I expect the Judiciary Committee will approve our bipartisan legislation next week when the Committee meets at its regularly-scheduled time.”

The committee met later Nov. 13 for what a spokesperson said was an open session, but in a US Capitol location inaccessible to the public. The spokesperson said the FOIA bill would not be discussed. Other sources indicated that discussions are under way to make modest changes to the bill that will allow unanimous committee support.

In another development, the Senate has begun moving on a bill to change the way the National Security Agency collects telephone data in its domestic spying program.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) filed a procedural motion to end debate on the USA Freedom Act, a measure authored by Leahy that also has bipartisan support.

Separately, Congress has completed action on a bill aimed at speeding the release of historical White House records, sending it to President Barack Obama for his signature.

Bipartisan FOIA Bill

The FOIA Improvement Act of 2014 (S. 2520), introduced by Leahy and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), would make a variety of reforms. The House passed a similar FOI reform bill unanimously earlier this year.

It codifies the presumption of disclosure and the foreseeable harm standards.

It amends exemption 5 of the FOIA – which authorizes agencies to withhold inter- and intra-agency memoranda that fall within civil discovery privileges –by adding a public interest balancing test. Also, information created 25 or more years before the date of any FOIA request would not be subject to withholding under FOIA exemption 5.

The bill would limit the authority of an agency to charge a fee if the agency misses a deadline for complying with a FOIA request,

The legislation would enhance and expand the role of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS).

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who is likely to head the Senate Judiciary Committee under Republican leadership, is a co-sponsor of the freedom of information bill.

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