Senate Moves to Clear FOIA Backlog


The Senate took a step Friday toward cleaning up the backlog of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, passing a bill that would try to prevent the current months- and even years-long delays for government responses to journalists' requests for information.

A similar bill already passed the House in March, but some differences with the Senate bill had to be hammered out, according to a staffer for one of the bill's co-sponsors.

Government agencies are supposed to respond withiin 20 days to FOIA requests, but a George Washington University study releases last month found that numerous requrests had been languishing for over a decade and one was over 20 years old.

The bill would not only toughen that shot clock, but would expand the definition of journalist to include requests by bloggers and freelancers.

The Senate bill, which was introduced in March, 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.

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

The American Civil Liberties Union praised the bill's passage: "This legislation will vastly improve the public's access to government records created at their expense. It updates the Freedom of Information Act to acknowledge changes in the way people get their news today, by updating the definition of news media," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, in a statement. "It creates real consequences for agencies that do not respond to FOIA requests in a timely manner. It makes it easier for people requesting information to recover attorney fees if they have to sue the government to compel the release of records."