US Senate Approves Reforms to 50-Year-Old FOI Act

15 March 2016

The US Senate on March 15 approved by unanimous consent a set of amendments to the Freedom of Information Act.

The Senate bill (S 337) is different in some ways from a bill previously passed unanimously by the House of Representatives. These differences will have to be reconciled before the legislation is sent to President Obama for his signature.

A leading Senate supporter, Vermont Democratic senator Patrick Leahy predicted Obama will sign the bill, notwithstanding the recent revelation of a document detailing Justice Department objections to similar legislation that died at the end of 2014.

The bill writes into law a specific presumption of openness, strengthens the FOIA ombudsman to speak with an independent voice, limits the use of the deliberative process exemption, sets a maximum limit of 25 years on withholding certain documents and mandates more proactive openness.

The scope of the 25-year sunset provision was diminished in a last-minute compromise, as explained by Nate Jones of the National Security Archive.  Jones also describes the key differences between the House and Senate bills.

The FOIA reforms were advocated by a Fix FOIA by 50 coalition, whose name references initial passage of the FOIA in 1966.

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