WASHINGTON A bill to close gaps in the Freedom of Information Act and speed release of government documents was introduced yesterday by a bipartisan pair of senators on the Judiciary Committee.
Sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and the panel's ranking Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the OPEN Government Act of 2005 was endorsed by 27 interest groups in journalism and across the political spectrum, from the liberal American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Heritage Foundation.
The bill, S. 394, restates the original 1966 act's "strong presumption in favor of disclosure" while noting the law has not always lived up to its ideals.
"If records can be open, they should be open," Cornyn said. "If there is a good reason to keep something closed, it is the government that should bear the burden (of proof) not the other way around."
"Much information is placed beyond the public view without any real justification," Cornyn added.
FOIA was last revised nearly a decade ago, and the last Senate compliance hearings were in 1992.
"FOIA has had serious setbacks in recent years," Leahy said. The bill updates "its protections to include new technologies and ... to reduce delays and encourage accessibility."
The bill would require agencies to give people seeking documents a tracking number within 10 days and to set up telephone or Internet systems allowing them to learn the status and estimated completion date.
Agencies that didn't respond within 20 days would lose all FOIA exemptions except national security, personal privacy, proprietary information or a ban in another law.
The bill would allow independent Internet journalists without news media affiliations to obtain fee waivers and would cover government records stored by private companies. It also would set up an ombudsman to mediate disputes.
Other endorsers include: American Library Association, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Associated Press Managing Editors, Federation of American Scientists, Free Congress Foundation, National Newspaper Association, National Security Archive, Newspaper Association of America and Radio-Television News Directors Association.