Bills Would Improve Access to Government Information

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A bill has been introduced in the Senate to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act. It is similar to one introduced last week in the House and fast-tracked for a floor vote scheduled for Wednesday, March 14.

The Senate bill is a new and improved version of one introduced in the Senate last session.

The bill clarifies deadlines for responding to requests, imposes consequences for missing those deadlines, clarifies that requests also apply to outside contractors holding government documents, and establishes a system for tracking requests through the system.

One improvement over the earlier proposed bill is that this version would make it easier for journalists to recover legal fees.

As the law stands now, according to Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government initiative, a government agency can delay until journalists sue for the information. They can then produce it which forces the journalists to pay the court costs. The new version of the bill would allow journalistic organizations to seek court costs from the government agency involved.

The Senate bill was introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and John Cornyn (R-Tex.).

The House version , which moved with unusual speed from introduction last week in committee to a possible floor vote on Wednesday was introduced by Democrats Henry Waxman (Calif.), Lacy Clay (Mo.) and Republican Todd Platts (Pa.).

According to Blum, the fast tracking of the bill was initiated in part to try to get the House bill approved during Sunshine Week .Sunshine week is an annual effort by media organizations to spotlight difficulties in getting access to government information, particularly in a post-9/11 world of increasing security classification of broad categories of documents.

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