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House Oversight Subcommittee Advances Legislation on FOIA, Presidential Records Act

Advocates of expanding government transparency enjoyed two quick successes on Tuesday as the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on information policy, census and national archives favorably reported two pieces of legislation to the full committee.

By voice vote, the subcommittee passed the Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 2007 (H.R. 1309), and the Presidential Records Act Amendments of 2007 (H.R. 1255). Both bipartisan measures would enhance the government’s responsibility to ensure public disclosure and availability of government documents. No roll call votes were recorded during the markup.

One bill, H.R. 1309, would be the most comprehensive reform to the 1966 Freedom of Information Act in more than a decade and would improve FOIA’s efficacy in facilitating requests for government agency records. The proposed legislation also would streamline the FOIA request and retrieval process and encourage agency compliance with record appeals.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), and co-sponsors Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Todd Platts (R-Pa.) said the changes to current law would modify the process for handling document requests without altering existing national security or privacy exemptions.

Clay, the subcommittee chairman, argued “reasserting the presumption of disclosure is important.”

Specific reforms to FOIA under H.R. 1309 include expanding the scope of individuals and organizations eligible to receive information; implementing disciplinary actions for arbitrary and capricious rejections of requests; enforcing a 20-day deadline for agencies to respond to requests; mandating individualized tracking numbers for requests and status information; and instituting agency reporting requirements for denied requests.

The other bill approved by the subcommittee, H.R. 1255, would revoke President Bush’s Executive Order No. 13233, which permitted the president to withhold any documents for any reason from public disclosure. The bill also would establish a procedure for handling claims of constitutionally based privilege against disclosure of presidential records.

Subcommittee ranking member Michael Turner (R-Ohio) said H.R. 1309 would “distinguish the nation’s interest from the president’s interests.”

The new provisions require a 20-day withholding period before presidential documents can be made public. During the waiting period, both the incumbent president and the president who produced the records would be notified of pending public disclosure. The provisions also require a court order to uphold presidential objections to public disclosure.

Both H.R. 1309 and H.R. 1255 will next be considered before the full House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Thursday.

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