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MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Make FOIA reforms a priority

MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Make FOIA reforms a priority

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Amid last week’s flurry of activity in the final days of the congressional session, one important piece of legislation was ignored. After languishing for months, the FOIA Improvement Act came within a hair’s breadth of passing, but instead died due to the inattention of House Speaker John Boehner.

Public pressure got the bill that far. Hopefully, public pressure will resurrect the bill for passage first thing in the new session.

For years now, journalists and media organizations across the nation have been clamoring for much-needed reforms to the federal Freedom of Information Act. That’s the act reporters and editors reference when requesting public documents from government agencies.

All too often, unfortunately, those requests are met with refusals or excuses that border on the ridiculous.

To cite one memorable example, when a ProPublica reporter sent a Freedom of Information Act request last year to the National Security Agency requesting emails between NSA employees and employees of the National Geographic Channel over a specific time period, the agency said no. Its excuse was that it lacked the ability to search its own emails.

The FOIA Improvement Act would help put a stop to such nonsense. It would formalize the presumption of openness — the assumption that the records of government agencies are public information unless specifically exempted. It would also force government agencies to make frequently requested information available electronically, and allow those who request documents to avoid paying fees for record searches or copies if the documents aren’t provided by the federally mandated deadline.

This legislation is the bipartisan work of U.S. Sen. Pat Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican. A companion bill, HR 1211, passed the House unanimously earlier this year. Ten months later, the Senate finally voted on Dec. 8, but when it was sent back to the House for the final stamp of approval, Boehner failed to bring it up.

While Congress certainly had a full plate last week, surely time could have been carved out for a final vote on a bill that previously received unanimous passage.

The bill is widely supported — by professional groups like the Society of Professional Journalists, media organizations across the country and legislators like Montana’s own U.S. Sen. Jon Tester. In fact, the Democrat from Big Sandy signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill.

Encouragingly, U.S. Sen.-elect Steve Daines, R-Mont., has also gone on record in support of FOIA reforms. Hopefully, U.S. Rep.-elect Ryan Zinke, who will take Daines’ seat in the House next month, understands the need for FOIA reforms as well, and will vote accordingly if given the opportunity.

Many very important pieces of legislation will be vying for congressional attention in the new year. The new Congress can set the right tone and send the right signal — of transparency and accountability to the people they represent — by making passage of the FOIA Improvement Act one of its first acts.

Missoulian editorial board: Publisher Mark Heintzelman, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.

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