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July 2, 2014     Journal Opinion
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July 2, 2014

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Improving FOIA by Nate Jones Earlier this year, the Veterans Affairs Administration denied the Tampa Tribune's Freedom of Information Act request for the names of VA hospitals where veterans died because of delays in medical screenings. To hide this information, tile VA used the"pre-decisional" exemption., simply stating that the re_.quted documents were "preliminary" communications and could thus be VV Ill 11 llu. This misapplication was not an isolated incident. Agency use of this b(5) catch- all exemption has skyrocketed to more than 12 percent of all FOIA requests, often to prevent embarrassment or hide errors and failures--ignoring President Obama's clear instructions to the contrary. Fortunately, Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and John Comyn (R-Texas), working in one ofWashington's last bastions of bipartisanship, have introduced a bill that will stem this abuse. The FOIA Improvement Act of 2014 will make it easier for everyday Americans to use the law to request and receive documents, such as the Veterans Affairs records, in three key ways. First, it reforms one of the most abused methods agencies use to withhold information: the so-called"pre decisional" exemption, which can actually be stretched to withhold all "interagency or intra- agency memorandums or letters." Second, the bill legislates that agencies cannot charge some FOIA fees when they miss their FOIA deadlines. Finally, the bill strengthens the FOIA ombuds office, a mediation service provided to requesters when they cannot afford litigation, and promotes proactive online access to documents. Perhaps most importantly, the Leahy-Comyn bill fixes the "withhold it because youwant to FOIA exemption by requiring agencies (and, ifnecessary, courts) to weigh the public interest before denying documents. It also limits the use of this exemption to documents 25 years or younger. This parallels the restrictions placed by the Presidential Records Act; if communications at the highest levels of government are eventually de facto available to the public, it only makes sense that agency communications should be aswell. The bill also cements fairness into the FOIA fee system. When media, educational or scientific institutions submit FOIA requests, the majority of their fees are always waived. This is not the case for everyday requesters, who are often charged expensive "search and review" fees. Earlier Comyn-Leahy legislation partially reduced these fees by mandating that a requester could not be charged fees if an agency missed the 20-day deadline to process the FOIA request. But, troublingly, agencies began successfully eluding this fee improvement simply by labeling requests as"unusuar and claiming these"unusual" requests were unprotected. The FOIA Improvement Act would definitively end this ,'unusual" fee runaround. The FOIA Improvement Act also strengths citizens' best FOIA advocate, the ombuds Office of Government Information Services. It gives OGIS more authority and ensures that agencies inform FOIA requesters that they have the fight to request FOIA dispute resolution service in lieu of expensive litigation. Additionally, the bill includes a provision requiting agencies to proactively post documents of likely public interest digitally, so citizens can have access without having to file Freedom of Information Act requests. Of course, for these FOIA reforms to take effect, the bill must become a law. Fortunately, the House of Representatives, spurred by the leadership of Reps. Darrell Issa (R-California), Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) and Mike Quigley (D-Illinois), unanimously passed a FOIA reform bill this February with 410 votes. In response to the Senate bill, Chairman I ssa's office stated that he "is committed to FOIA reform and looks forward to working with his Senate partners." Given the bipartisan nature of both bills, the forecast for genuine FOIA reform that helps citizens access their government's documents may well be sunny in 2014. ### Jones serves as the FOIA Coordinator for the National Security Archive, a member of the openthegovernment.org coalition. As the Journal Opinion approaches its 150 m anniversary in 2015, we will be bringing you snippets from the past editions each week. The intent is to explore the headlines, stories, and advertising to understand how much has changed and how much has remained the same. This column comes from the July 1, 1892 issue of The United Opinion. A large party had been searching for a 15-year-old girl who had been missing from Bradford since June 24. Edna Harris, who had been in the employ of a Mrs. ElizaBarrett, had left her bed in her night clothes and wandered away. She had been traced four miles up the Waits River, but there were fears that she had drowned due to "temporary insanity." ### There were reports from throughout the area of a series of terrible storms and inundations. In East Corinth, considerable damage was done to the roads. A "cyclone" in Union Village was responsible for cutting down swaths ofvaluablewoodlots,sweeping away buildings and demolishing buildings. ### Schools throughout the area were concluding their terms and letting out for the summer. ### The annual log drive was flowing down the Connecticut River. The previous week, it had passed North Thetford. ### Residents in East Corinth were preparing for a grand celebration on the Fourth of July where there was going to be a raising of the liberty pole and fireworks in the evening. ### There was scandal in Lyrne when the local meat man, Harris Gilbert, told his family they would never see him again and he left town. I J'00i 9 to x= SPEC00/I 20% Off RED,WHITE-BLUE Fabr00 I July 16 to 19 SPECIAL CHRISTMAS IN JULY 0% Off Christmas Fabric FROM JULY 9-19 GET20% OFF PRE-CUT WIDE BACK FABRIC JOIN US FOR A UNGLE SAFARI! July 7 to 11 at Trinity Church of the Nazarene July 2, 2014--JOURNAL OPINION--Page 7 The president has proclaimed June a month of pride. He has said: So let it be written; so let it be done. But it is also, unavoidably, amonth of pain. No one came to office with more accolades, more laurels than Barack Obama did. He was hailed as being above the ken of mortal men. His campaign team referred to him, not without irony, as "Black Jesus." Respected presidential historian Michael Beschloss described him as the smartest man ever to enter the White House. The ever-hip New Yorker magazine portrayed him as the Father of Our Country, George Washington, only cooler. Five years ago, at Normandy, he was lauded as "hovering over the nations like a sort of god." That was Newsweek editor Evan Thomas's glowing assessment of the new leader' s D-Day commemoration. It is painful to recall those halcyon days. It might not be impertinent to ask Evan Thomas to recall for us a single word uttered by hi s hovering god atNormandy in 2009. Or in 2014. In this era of 24/7 cable coverage, the president's"selfie" at the Mandela funeral and his chewing gum at the 70 th anniversary of D-Day seem to be what people remember, if they remember anything of this once promising young commander-in-chief. His media men will doubtless curse the fate that caused President Obama's Pointe-du-Hoc moment to be lost in the welter of criticism of the administration over the VA scandal and the deserter-for-Taliban"A Team" swap. Media big, Barbara Walters, spoke with a certain world-weary tristesse when she sighed: "We thought he was going to be (I shouldn't say this at Christmas-time) the next Messiah." Even Chris Matthews no longer speaks of that tingling Pain, pride, and presidents by Robert Morrison sensation going up and down his leg when Mr. Obama speaks. Worse still, the Audis and BMWs in toney Georgetown have blossomed with 'Tm ready for Hillary" bumper stickers. Weren't they leaning forward and all in for Obamajust months ago? There's a certain resignation in the sentiment, as if these are aristocrats from the court of Louis XV in France saying "after us the deluge." ' Maybe pride is the problem. It was James Madison, that little man, that modest, slight man with a voice barely audible, who taught us: "If men were angels, no govemment would be necessary." This "withered little applej ohn" was an unlikely candidate for greatness, or anything else. Yet he shone in intellil gence, diligence, and integrity. He did not rely on puff  :s  md promoters to clear his path. He had to make his way through effort. One of my favorite examples of not becoming puffed up by the presidency is Harry Truman. In April, 1945, when President Franklin Roosevelt died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Georgia, Vice President Truman was summoned to the White House to be sworn in. He walked briskly from his Capitol Hill office to the Executive Mansion, leaving many of the chain smokers in the press corps behind. Newly sworn in as the 3Y a president, Harry bent down and kissed the Bible. And he said to the reporters: "Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now.... I [feel] like the moon, the stars and all the planets [have] fallen on me." On Friday, April 13, barely twenty-four hours after becoming president, Truman returned to Capitol Hill to consult with leaders of Congress. He suggested a Special State of the Union Message which he would deliver on the following Monde. "Too soon!" "Roosevelt s funeral is on Sunday- impossible!" "This would be a bad first step," he was told. Harry listened quietly and respectfully as the Capitol Hill talkers talked. Then he said decisively: "Get ready. I'm coming." It was an exhausting weekend. Most of the political, judicial, and military leaders of the nation attended FDR's funeral. They had journeyed by train to the Roosevelt family estate at Hyde Park, New York. Still, on Monday, promptly, President Truman entered the Chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives. He mounted the rostrum and addressed the gathered dignitaries. "Hold on, Harry," growled the gruff, bald Speaker, Sam Rayburn of Texas, "I have to introduce you." Truman spoke without the brilliant Harvard phrases or the polished eloquence of FDR, but he spoke from the heart to millions of hearts: He pledged to carry on the war on two continents to eventual victory and unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan. He promised to fulfill the commitments made by his four- term predecessor. His speech was a great success, applauded on both sides of the aisle. He concluded with these words: "At this moment, I have in my heart a prayer. As I have assumed my heavy duties, I humbly pray Almighty God, in the words of King Solomon: Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people that I may discern between good and bad, for who is able to judge this thy so great a people. I ask only to be a good and faithful servant of my Lord and my people." The hushed House Chamber erupted in thunderous applause. It was said of Franklin D. Roosevelt that he was for the people. But Harry Truman was the people. He was a humble man because he knew the dangers of pride. Pride goes before a fall, he knew. He read that somewhere. ### Robert Morrison is a senior fellow at the Family Research Council dream! From dreams for your family to dreams for your financial future, Modern Woodmen of America is proud to be here for you. We can help you plan for all stages of life - from protection to saving to retirement planning. Let's talk. 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