Making Government Operations More Open

Real penalties for agencies that violate FOIA time limits

Congress has set time limits for agencies to respond to FOIA requests, but many agencies deliberately flaunt these limits by failing to fund their FOIA offices, building up multi-year backlogs that serve the agency's desire to keep its operations secret. The courts let the agencies get away with it under a theory that they're doing the best they can. The FBI and NSA are two egregious exploiters, each of which lets FOIA requests languish for literally YEARS.

Some or all of the suggestions below should be adopted to cure this problem.

The President should penalize the following year's operating budget of any agency that has a backlog of FOIA requests, proportionately to its backlog. If the agency can't properly inform the public about its operations, it should be cut back to have fewer operations.

If a FOIA request has not been responded to within the statutory deadline, the agency should be prohibited (by Executive Order and/or statute) from withholding any portion

of the records under "discretionary" authority. In other words, if a statute doesn't require the agency to withhold the info, the agency would be required to release it.

They can spend the time to make discretionary withholdings if they do it within the time limits; not after.

Any agency that violates the FOIA time limits in more than 10% of its FOIA requests should be unable to penalize citizens for violating agency-imposed time limits in any other matter before the agency.

No fees should be charged to requesters for any FOIA request which is not answered within the statutory time limits.

Congress should authorize the courts to hold agency heads in contempt of court for failing to meet FOIA time limits in an individual request. This authority should include the court's ability to place the agency head, attorney, or other appropriate government employees, under arrest by US Marshals until such time as the FOIA request is satisfied. Courts would have discretion to do this at any time after the request is overdue, but would not be required to exert this authority until the request has been delayed by more than 10x the statutory period.


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  1. Comment

    The citizens are the governments' boss. We demand laws like the FOIA to ensure that our government employees and appointees are accountable to us. If they fail to adhere to these most basic of standards (the standard that LETS us hold them to standards) then they should be fired. In fact, since this really is the linchpin of the whole operation, the head of the agency and the budget decisionmaker(s) should be the ones to be fired. FOIA is a law to enforce laws, and failure to adequately provide for its operation won't be tolerated.