By ROHAIL PREMJEE and BRYAN RAHIJA
You'd think it would be easy for Congress to pass a bipartisan good government bill that has the support of public interest groups AND has passed the Senate by unanimous consent. But for the Faster FOIA Act, it's been a rocky road.
Co-sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX), this bill establishes a commission to identify ways to reduce processing time and increase the efficiency of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests submitted to federal agencies.
Sounds good, right? On Monday the Senate passed the Faster FOIA Act of 2011 (S. 1466) with bipartisan support. But the Faster FOIA Act was originally S. 627 (which the Senate passed by unanimous consent in May, until Speaker Boehner decided to use S. 627 as a vehicle for his deficit reduction plan. Fox News offered this explanation of what happened:
What they're doing is putting the text of [House Majority Leader John] Boehner's bill in the shell of a Senate measure (hence the S. on this calcified legislation that deals with FOIA) to expedite Senate consideration.
In short, it turns the Senate vehicle--in this case the FOIA bill--into a House amendment, which is privileged in the Senate. That eliminates at least one of the cloture hurdles which seemingly take forever to overcome in the Senate.
It cuts the time and number of cloture votes by two days so rather than voting on final passage in five days, you could conceivably get to it in three days.
In other words, if someone believes this is the only live animal here to avert a default on August 2nd, this is the most expeditious way to get it passed, eliminating one of the hurdles.
Champions of good government were frustrated by this move. OpenTheGovernment.org’s Director Patrice McDermott stated that it marked a setback for openness and accountability.
And as POGO's Angela Canterbury pointed out, “If House leadership wishes to make good on their pledge to improve transparency and accountability, they should not kill this good government bill with strong bipartisan support as a political maneuver.” It is high irony that an open government bill was hijacked for legislation crafted in secret--without any hearings and far less than the 72-hour notice for review before a vote supposedly required by House Rules.
In response, POGO and a host of good government groups submitted a letter urging congressional leaders to restore the FOIA provisions in S. 627. But S. 627 went to the Senate without the FOIA measures, where it was tabled by a 59-41 vote, effectively killing the Faster FOIA Act.
That wasn’t first time the Faster FOIA Act met an untimely end. The House failed to seal the deal after a 2010 version of the bill cleared the Senate by, you guessed it, unanimous consent. The 2005 version of the bill, introduced by Senator Cornyn and five co-sponsors (including Senator Leahy), was never voted on.
It’s high time that the Faster FOIA Act became law. This bill has the support of legislators from both sides of the aisle and a host of good government groups. Now that it's in the hands of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (HOGR), we strongly urge HOGR Chair Darrell Issa (R-CA) to take up this bill after the August recess.
In a statement released Tuesday, Senator Leahy urged the House of Representatives to follow the Senate’s lead and pass the FOIA Act of 2011.
Rohail Premjee is a POGO intern. Bryan Rahija edits POGO's blog.
Image from SpeakerBoehner Flickr account.