In Opaque Move, Boehner Tables Government Transparency Bill

Boehner
A rebellion inside Republican ranks failed to oust John Boehner as speaker of the House on Tuesday. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

After passing the Senate by unanimous consent on Monday, it seemed as if the FOIA Improvement Act would become law—a nearly identical version passed the House earlier this year. Today, however, it was up to Speaker of the House John Boehner to allow a vote on the bill’s final passage before the House adjourned this week. Instead, it was “held at the desk,” meaning Boehner may have just killed FOIA reform.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law, signed in 1966, that gives people the right to access information from the federal government. Through FOIA, journalists and citizens alike have uncovered stories like the U.S. government turning down hundreds of millions of dollars in Katrina aid, the Pentagon ignoring a tip alleging 135 cases of fraud amounting to nearly $200 million, shortages in funding hampering cleanup at hazardous waste sites and 17,000 bridges failing to be inspected on schedule, to name a few.

“It is an uniquely American act, but it is a tool that needs to be continually sharpened,” says Nate Jones, the Freedom of Information Act Coordinator at the George Washington University's National Security Archive. “The government is pretty good at giving information to people it wants to give, but the Freedom of Information Act is really a gem that allows the public to have a fighting chance to get the information from the government that they want.”

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) sponsored a bill earlier this year called the “FOIA Improvement Act,” which seeks to make government more transparent by addressing issues requesters face when seeking information. One of the most significant changes in the bill involves exemption 5, which is used to protect inter- or intra-agency communications.

Transparency advocates say this is one of the most abused exemptions. According to reports by the Associated Press, exemption 5 is being used at an unprecedented rate. With FOIA use skyrocketing under the Obama administration, transparency advocates say the atmosphere is ripe for reform.

“It is written so broadly that basically what we are seeing more and more and more, agencies are using the broad wording to slap it on anything that’s embarrassing because basically any document is an inter or intra agency communication,” Jones said.

“They used this exemption to restrict the names of VA hospitals where people were dying due to too long of wait times. They used this exemption to block the history of the Bay of Pigs invasion—CIA history that is 30 years old. They are using it to block documents about U.S. policy during the Rwanda genocide. These are just a few overuses. This law will keep protections for deliberations when they should be withheld and make it harder to misapply this exemption,” he continued.

Another significant change made to exemption 5 includes a 25-year threshold, meaning that government records withheld using this exemption can no longer remain permanently classified. After 25 years, the bill says exemption 5 records can be released. The bill also includes a provision that says agencies must prove that actual harm will occur before they use many exemptions.  

But these improvements may never see the light of day, as Boehner has tabled the bill. In a press conference on Thursday morning, a journalist asked Boehner about the fate of the FOIA reform bill to which he replied, “I have no knowledge of what the plan is for that bill.” If the bill does not make the House’s calendar by the end of the day, the bill dies.

Correction: This article originally stated that The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gives U.S. citizens the right to access information from the federal government. This law is, in fact, open to any person, not just U.S. citizens.