What: All Issues : Making Government Work for Everyone, Not Just the Rich or Powerful : Right to Government Information : H.R. 1309 Legislation to amend the Freedom of Information Act/On the motion to suspend the rules and pass (2007 house Roll Call 144)
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H.R. 1309 Legislation to amend the Freedom of Information Act/On the motion to suspend the rules and pass
house Roll Call 144     Mar 14, 2007
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This bill represented the most comprehensive reform of the nation's freedom of information laws in more than a decade. The 1966 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) originally gave citizens a right to view the operations of their government in the open by granting access to documents and information from federal agencies. That system has been widely acknowledged to be broken, however, although up until this year there has not been a majority consensus in Congress as to how to move forward.

Many federal agencies are years and even decades behind in responding to FOIA requests, and the agencies' delays have left requestors with little other choice but costly litigation to get the information they seek. This bill -- sponsored by Reps. William Macy Clay (D-Mo.), Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Todd Platts (R-Pa.) -- aims to improve the efficiency of the FOIA system by streamlining the request and retrieval processes and implementing punitive measures as well as financial incentives for agency compliance.

Reforms include expanding the range of individuals and organizations eligible to receive information; enforcing a 20-day deadline for agencies to respond to FOIA requests; instituting tracking numbers for requests and status information as well as a public hotline to track requests; requiring agencies to issue reports on the number of denied requests; establishing an ombudsman's office to settle disputes so as to avert litigation; and giving requestors the right to recover attorney fees after successful litigation. The bill also reverses a 2001 order by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft that restricted public disclosure of information in cases with legal uncertainty, thus restoring FOIA's long-established "presumption of disclosure."

The White House expressed opposition to the bill, saying that it was "premature and counterproductive" to put new requirements on federal agencies until they have a chance to implement changes the president made in an executive order a year an a half ago. Some Republicans also expressed concerns about the potential of disclosing information that related to national security.

The bill was taken up by a procedure known as a suspension of the rules, basically a time-saving method used for relatively noncontroversial legislation that is all but assured of passage. Suspending the rules means that the measure is not amendable and debate is limited to forty minutes on each side. (Although bills brought up under suspension are by definition not amendable, a motion to suspend the rules may propose passage of the measure in an amended form, as this motion did.) Bills taken up under suspension of the normal House rules require a two-thirds majority for passage.

The measure passed with the support of all 228 Democrats present as well as 80 Republicans; 117 Republicans voted against it. Thus, a measure to reform the Freedom of Information Act to expand the range of individuals and organizations eligible to receive information, improve the responsiveness of federal agencies, and institute measures to require executive branch compliance was sent to the Senate.

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