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Cornyn leads successful Senate passage of major FOIA reform bill

Under the leadership of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill to expand the public's access to federal government records

Last week’s vote comes after a year of delay and means that both chambers have now passed similar proposals to strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).   

The House passed its bill in January.

The most likely next step involves merging the two bills and resolving differences before a final bill is sent to President Barack Obama.  

Senate sources are hopeful that will happen by early July.

A White House spokesperson confirmed that Obama will sign the legislation if it reaches his desk in the Senate’s form.

White House staff have previously lobbied against the effort to pass a major reform to the FOIA. 

Senate Majority Whip Cornyn and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, led the effort to pass the Senate measure.

It took some serious arm twisting by Cornyn with members of his own party to strike a deal for passage.  

The Senate bill would update the open-records law used by journalists, researchers and the public. Many who have dealt with the process complain about delays and unnecessary redactions from agencies.

A House committee report recently described the current federal law as "broken".

The update would codify a so-called presumption of openness, which requires federal agencies and other parts of the government to adopt a policy that leans toward the public release of documents. Obama instructed federal agencies to adopt a similar model when he entered office, but critics say the government hasn't lived up to that promise.

Under the legislation, federal agencies would have to point to a specific "foreseeable harm" when withholding documents that would typically be exempt from public release.

The legislation would also create a single FOIA request portal for all federal agencies, limit the amount of time that certain documents are exempt from disclosure, and make more documents available online, among other things. 

Cornyn and other congressional lawmakers have tried to get a major FOIA reform passed in recent years but have run into stiff opposition from the Department of Justice and other federal enforcement agencies.

Both the U.S. House and Senate passed measures in the last Congress, but the Senate effort came too late to merge the bills.

A last ditch effort to pass either the House or Senate bill in both chambers ran out of time due to opposition lobbying and fighting between the House and Senate.

Questions? Contact TAB's Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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