Senate Passes Bill to Update Freedom of Information Act

Bill Introduced by Leahy, Cornyn Would Speed Process for Journalists Requesting Information

The Senate Friday passed a bill that could help to hold the government's feet to the fire when it comes to responding to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The bill is intended, in part, to try to prevent the current months- and even years-long delays for government responses to journalists' requests for information.

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

The Senate bill, 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.

One improvement over the earlier proposed bill is that this version would make it easier for journalists to recover legal fees. The bill would not only toughen that shot clock, but would expand the definition of journalist to include requests by bloggers and free-lancers.

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

The American Civil Liberties Union praised its passage and called on the House to follow suit.

"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,” she added. “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."