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House Passes Bill to Put More FOIA Processing Online

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The House unanimously passed legislation late Tuesday that would make it more difficult for agencies to refuse to release information requested under the Freedom of Information Act and would require more FOIA requests to be managed online.

The FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act would require the government to work toward a single online portal for all FOIA requests. The bill includes a pilot program to test a cross-agency online FOIA portal at three agencies that have not yet used one. 

An earlier draft of the bill identified the portal to be tested as FOIAonline, an existing portal built by the Environmental Protection Agency that is currently used by EPA, the National Archives, most of the Commerce Department and a handful of smaller agencies. In addition to filing, processing and responding to FOIA requests online, the portal also allows agencies to share information about requests that cross agency lines of jurisdiction and to track which documents are most requested.

The final draft of the bill removes any explicit referene to the EPA system.

The White House announced similar plans for a governmentwide FOIA portal as part of its commitments to the international Open Government Partnership in October.

The FOIA bill, sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., would also require agencies to post online any document that is requested more than three times through FOIA and put the power of legislation behind a 2009 memorandum from Attorney General Eric Holder that required agencies to review FOIA requests with a presumption of openness.

“This shifts the burden of proof from the public requestor seeking information about a government agency…to the government being open and transparent unless it has a good reason to withhold,” Issa said while introducing the bill on the House floor.

Issa and Cummings are the chairman and ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Their legislation would also require the Office of Government Information Services, which was established as a sort of FOIA ombudsman in 2007, to report directly to Congress rather than passing its reports and recommendations through the White House’s Office of Management and Budget first.

Transparency advocates have accused OMB of delaying publication of OGIS reports. OMB delayed OGIS’ first report for several months until it was finally released following pressure from senators.

This article has been corrected to note the final bill excludes any specific references to the FOIAonline system.

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