This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
There were two big reasons to celebrate the Fourth of July this year: America's 240th birthday and the 50th anniversary of passage of one of the most important pieces of legislation in our nation's history the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
For half a century, Americans have relied on FOIA to gain access to vital information from the government. FOIA has brought to light numerous issues of public concern, including the link between cancer and a top-selling toothpaste; the E. coli-tainted beef that the Department of Agriculture allowed to be processed and sold even after it found E-coli contamination in numerous meat plants; and the hundreds of millions of dollars in overseas Katrina aid turned down by the U.S. government.
However, in recent years, the process for obtaining records and information from the government has become increasingly difficult, or downright impossible, for a variety of reasons. Many federal agencies simply ignore FOIA requests or provide incomplete or delayed information.
Here at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), we once waited an astounding nine years to hear back from a FOIA request that we made to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) during Hurricane Katrina! And, when they finally got back to us, our request was denied.
Apparently, public access to communications between companies who were awarded billion-dollar contracts and a DHS official who, soon after DHS awarded the contracts, left to work for one of the companies constituted an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
The good news is that much-needed reforms to FOIA have just been passed by the House and Senate, and President Obama has pledged to sign the bill.
The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 promises to restore the original intent of the legislation, which is to foster a more open and accountable federal government.
The new bill significantly narrows the wiggle room that agencies have as they respond to FOIA requests. It codifies the presumption of openness, first ordered by President Obama in a 2009 memorandum, which tells agencies that disclosure of information should be their go-to response to a FOIA request.
The bill also makes more records available digitally and limits the use of a FOIA exception that agencies have been relying on for years to avoid public scrutiny.
There were six members of Congress from both sides of the aisle who were instrumental in passage of these reforms, including House Government Oversight Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz from Utah.
POGO applauds Rep. Chaffetz for his work to help make the government more transparent and accountable.
Danielle Brian is executive director of the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).