FOIA Facts: Legislative FOIA action (and Inaction)By Scott A. Hodes, Published on May 23, 2004
There hasn’t been much
legislative action lately at the federal level in amending or changing the
FOIA. The last major change was the e-FOIA amendments of 1996, and there
doesn’t seem to be any other changes on the horizon.
The real action on changes in access laws is at the state level. Most, if not all of the states, have some types of access law. Many of these laws are based on the federal FOIA, but each have there own quirks and requirements not found at the federal level. State legislatures are constantly amending, rewriting and changing their access laws.
In the last week alone, I have seen that Missouri, Virginia, the District of Columbia and Maryland were considering or actually acting on changes to their access laws. Anyone with an interest in access requests at the state level should pay attention to their state legislatures, and try to determine the effect changes on these laws will have on citizen’s access to government records.
Amending the FOIA is not the only way the Congress can have an affect on the FOIA. Congress can and should use its oversight responsibilities to hold hearings on the FOIA. Hearings on FOIA agency FOIA policy and performance are a useful tool in making sure that top officials at agencies pay attention to the FOIA. When I was at the FBI, I remember frantically trying to pull together information for my supervisors so they could testify before Congress. My bosses would then question me about my office’s performance so that they would be fully aware of any problems in Congress asked of them. This exercise helped us to better perform our FOIA responsibilities.
Unfortunately, as of late, there haven’t been many hearings about the FOIA on the hill. There just doesn’t seem much interest in the FOIA by Congress. If there was, one would think that the fact that environmental interest groups which seem to be lining up at the courthouse doors to file FOIA lawsuits would raise questions about environmental agencies FOIA performance. It hasn’t happened. However, a few hearings might help to get these agencies in line without the expense of these time consuming and expensive lawsuits.