The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground. —THOMAS JEFFERSON, 1788

Government agencies’ response to backlog of FOIA requests? Dog ate my homework

Jason Chaffetz

Jason Chaffetz

Apologists for the Obama administration appeared on Capitol Hill Wednesday to answer charges that they were failing to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests, which are piling up. Chief FOIA officers for five government agencies had a plethora of excuses for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, though one Republican member of the panel pointed to the sheer size of government as the problem.

Department of Justice Office of Information Policy Director Melanie Ann Pustay said that insufficient staffing was the culprit, noting that in 2014 “the government overall reported its lowest staffing levels dedicated to FOIA in the past six fiscal years.” Pustay’s office oversees FOIA activities throughout the executive branch.

Department of State Assistant Secretary of Administration Joyce Barr said the FOIA cases are “increasingly complex,” regarding topics such as terrorism, foreign government relations and pending litigation against the U.S. government.

IRS Director of Privacy, Governmental Liaison and Disclosure Division Mary Howard had a novel excuse: She blamed investigations for her agency’s backlog. “Ultimately, the decision to give priority to the investigations” by the inspector general, the Department of Justice, and “the four congressional committees resulted in a significant increase in inventory of FOIA casework at the IRS,” Howard said.

But Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., saw another issue as the cause of the backlog:

I’m convinced that FOIA isn’t the problem. The increasing size and control of the government is the problem. Why wouldn’t we expect a huge, huge number of FOIA requests?

Staffing levels for executive branch departments and agencies are proposed by the president in the chief executive’s annual budget proposal. Departments and agencies also have significant latitude in assigning civil servants to specific programs.

The panel’s ranking Democrat agreed with the executive branch officials.

“Your job is difficult and it’s getting harder,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings. He blamed at least part of the backlog on budget cuts, adding, “You do have a critical responsibility, which is to make federal records available to the American public as efficiently as possible.”

Noting that the backlog of FOIA requests has doubled under Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said, “The agencies before the committee today need to bring sunshine to their FOIA programs.” He  pointed out that Howard had to be subpoenaed to appear before the committee, adding:

We will drag the IRS up here every single week if we have to. You work for the American people. If the IRS went after an individual … There’s no way you’d put up with this.

The Oversight Committee heard testimony Tuesday from journalists who gave examples of ridiculous FOIA delays, denials, and redactions.

“The witnesses yesterday told us the FOIA process is broken, and probably broken by design,” Chaffetz said Wednesday.

He also noted an April 2009 memo from Obama that required agencies to allow the White House to screen any FOIA requests that concerned “White House equities.”

“It’s wrong, it’s wrong, it’s wrong!” Chaffetz shouted Tuesday.

Howard claimed the IRS never shared documents requested under FOIA requests with the White House.

“The White House told you to do that,” Chaffetz said. “Are you telling me you didn’t comply with the White House?”

This report, by Ethan Barton, was cross-posted by arrangement with the Daily Caller News Foundation.

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