Committee Examined FOIA: Transparency Under the Trump Administration

Mar 13, 2019
Press Release

Washington, D.C. (Mar. 13, 2019)—Today, the Committee on Oversight and Reform, chaired by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, held a hearing on “FOIA: Examining Transparency Under the Trump Administration.”

TAKEAWAYS

  • The Deputy Chief FOIA Officer of the Department of Interior, Rachel Spector, testified that she was aware of issues related to the deletion of Acting Secretary Bernhardt’s daily calendar.  According to Ms. Spector, the Solicitor’s Office at the Department is working with the Department’s record officers to review Acting Secretary Bernhardt’s conduct and determine whether it is consistent with federal records law.

 

  • Democratic Members of the Committee urged the Department of Interior to reconsider a new rule proposed in December that would allow Interior to impose arbitrary monthly limits for records processed for certain requestors.  Ms. Spector admitted that the Department of Interior has failed to define a set number for the monthly limits.

 

  • Melanie Pustay, the Director of the Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice, agreed with members of the Committee that an increase in proactive disclosures by agencies would reduce the cost of the FOIA program and save taxpayer dollars.  Data released by the Department of the Interior shows that the Department proactively disclosed 58% less data than the last full year of the Obama Administration.

 

BACKGROUND

 

  • FOIA fosters government transparency by enabling public access to federal records.  The statute requires federal agencies to release records within prescribed time limits upon receiving written requests that reasonably describe the requested records.  The Supreme Court has described the purpose of FOIA as "vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against con-uption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.”

 

  • In 2016, Congress passed the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, which broadened access to records and made the requesting process less burdensome for requesters. The FOIA Improvement Act amended FOIA to require agencies to respond to requests with a presumption of openness, increased the independence of the Office of Government Information Services, and created a Chief FOIA Officers Council, in addition to other changes to strengthen FOIA.

 

  • On March 5, 2019, Chairman Cummings, joined by Senator Patrick Leahy, Senator Chuck Grassley, and Senator John Cornyn, sent a letter to Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) David Bernhardt to express significant concern with the rule recently proposed by DOI concerning its FOIA procedures.  That bipartisan letter noted that "the proposed rule would make the process more confusing and potentially expose it to politicization

 

WITNESSES

 

Ms. Melanie Ann Pustay

Director

Office of Information Policy

U.S. Department of Justice

 

Ms. Rachel Spector

Acting Deputy Chief Freedom of Information Act Officer

U.S. Department of the Interior

 

Mr. Tim Epp

Acting Director

National FOIA Office

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

 

VIDEO

Watch Chairman Cummings’ question line. 

Watch Rep. Sarbanes’ question line.

 

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116th Congress