On March 14, 2007, the House of Representatives, by a vote of 308-117, approved H.R. 1309, the “Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 2007.” This legislation contains numerous provisions that will increase public access to government information by strengthening the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The same day, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a SAP on H.R. 1309, expressing the Administration’s opposition to the bill.
The floor debate, and text of the bill, can be found in the Congressional Record.
View a PDF copy of the OMB’s Statement of Administration Policy in opposition to H.R. 1309, go to:
The bill reaffirms the presumption that records should be released to the public if disclosure is allowable under law and the agency cannot reasonably foresee harm from such a disclosure. This was the standard that was in effect during the Clinton administration. This provision would effectively rescind the “Ashcroft Memorandum” which was issued on October 12, 2001, in response to the 9/11 attacks and restore the “foreseeable harm” standard. The Ashcroft FOIA Memorandum established a “sound legal basis” standard. Under this standard, agencies are required to reach the judgment that their use of a FOIA exemption is on sound footing, both factually and legally, whenever they withhold requested information. This provision was one of the major reasons the Administration opposed the bill.
The bill also puts teeth into the requirement that agencies respond to FOIA requests within 20 days. H.R. 1309 makes this deadline meaningful by ensuring that the 20-day statutory clock runs immediately upon an agency’s receipt of a request and by imposing consequences on federal agencies for missing the deadline. The bill also requires agencies to provide requesters with individualized tracking numbers for each request and access to a telephone or internet hotline with information about the status of requests.
The bill strengthens agency reporting requirements to identify excessive delays and requires each agency to make the raw data used to compile its annual reports publicly available. The bill also requires the Government Accountability Office to report annually on the Department of Homeland Security’s use of the broad disclosure exemption for “critical infrastructure information.”
H.R. 1309 creates a new FOIA ombudsman to help FOIA requesters resolve problems without having to resort to litigation. The FOIA ombudsman will be located at the National Archives and will help requesters by providing informal guidance and nonbinding opinions regarding rejected or delayed FOIA requests. The FOIA ombudsman will also review agency compliance with FOIA.
H.R. 1309 makes it more feasible for citizen groups to challenge the improper withholding of government information by expanding access to attorneys’ fees for FOIA requesters who successfully challenge an agency’s denial of information. The bill also holds agencies accountable for their decisions by enhancing the authority of the Office of Special Counsel to take disciplinary action against government officials who arbitrarily and capriciously deny disclosure.
The legislation also requires agencies to provide reasons for each redaction in documents that are released in response to a FOIA request.