Though President Barack Obama has repeatedly asserted that his administration is the most transparent in history, a congressional report released Monday shows that it’s anything but, as the House prepares to vote on a bipartisan bill to force the federal government to be more forthcoming about information.
“The executive branch culture encourages an unlawful presumption in favor of secrecy when responding to FOIA requests,” the report by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee says.
The Freedom of Information Act requires federal departments and agencies to provide documents to the public upon request, with some exceptions such as national security.
The congressional report asserts that under the Obama administration agencies follow FOIA policies that appear to be designed to deter requesters from pursuing requests and create barriers to accessing records.
Open records information gained increased attention of late, as the State Department seems to have slow-walked the release of emails to and from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate.
“The Department of State had numerous open requests that are nearly a decade old, making them arguably the worst agency with respect to FOIA compliance,” the report says.
“When President Obama took office he promised an ‘unprecedented level of openness in government.’ This report demonstrates that is not the case,” House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said.
“Backlogs of FOIA claims have more than doubled since 2009 and agencies are sitting on piles of unfulfilled document requests,” Chaffetz continued. “Instead of the open and transparent government promised, this administration is playing a game of hide the document from the American people.”
In 2014, the Obama administration set a record by censoring more government records than in any preceding year, as 250,581 — or 39 percent of all requests — had either words or even entire pages blacked out. In 215,584 instances, government agencies claimed the record could not be found or determined the request was not reasonable.
The House is voting Monday on a bipartisan FOIA overhaul that has 54 co-sponsors, led by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). The legislation is designed to make it easier for journalists, government watchdog groups and historians to obtain information.
"I'm optimistic that this bill passes the House with bipartisan support and will be signed into law in the near future,” Issa said. “The bill represents major common sense reforms that give citizen watchdogs and journalists easier access to information to hold the government accountable. Chiefly, it changes the assumption that government information is secret to a presumption of openness and modernizes the system for processing requests so that agency responses are more efficient."