Bill to probe FOIA delays clears Senate Judiciary

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Plan would set up commission to explore reasons for sidetracked requests.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bipartisan bill Thursday that would set up a commission to explore why tens of thousands of requests for government information get sidetracked.

Co-sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the bill was approved and sent to the full Senate on a voice vote.

The legislation is in response to delays lasting sometimes years in responding to requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

Leahy noted some progress in cleaning up the backlog of applications for information, saying the administration reported that the number of pending cases dropped from 124,019 in fiscal 2008 to 67,764 in fiscal 2009, a government-wide decrease of 50 percent. "But large FOIA backlogs remain a major roadblock to public access to information," Leahy said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said exemptions cited by agencies under FOIA for preventing release of information have risen significantly in the last year. The law lists exceptions for complying with requests, such as to protect national security or personal privacy.

The bill sets up a 16-person commission to study the reasons for the delays and issue a report of recommendations within a year. An amendment by Leahy approved by voice vote orders the commission to examine and determine why the number of exemptions numbered 467,000 in fiscal 2009.

The amendment asks the commission to determine what efforts are being made to comply with President Obama's order in January 2009 to make government more open.