Watchdog groups have repeatedly taken President Obama to task for not living up to his pledge to run the “most open and transparent administration in history.” Now, the bipartisan leaders of a congressional oversight panel are piling on with fresh criticism of the administration’s performance.
House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, and Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the panel’s ranking Democrat, say they want answers on the administration’s record of responding to public requests for information required by federal law.
The two lawmakers this week sent a letter to the Justice Department posing 24 questions about long-standing problems with the administration’s record on Freedom on Information Act (FOIA) requests and the department’s role in improving federal agency compliance with the transparency law.
The lawmakers asked the department’s top FOIA officer for information about outdated FOIA regulations, what they said were “exorbitant and possibly illegal” fees, backlogs and an excessive use of exemptions and dispute-resolution services.
Critics say previous administrations, including those of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, also had lackluster records when it came to responding to public requests for information. But after promising to improve, Mr. Obama has failed to make progress, they say.
In fact, during Mr. Obama’s time in office, the Justice Department itself has become even less responsive to public information requests, the lawmakers found.
Overall, administration agencies made more than 30,000 full denials of information requests and more than 171,000 partial denials in fiscal year 2011. The Justice Department itself increased the number of times it invoked an exemption to the law requiring a timely response, from 1,231 times in 2010 to 1,500 times in 2011.
In their letter, Mr. Issa and Mr. Cummings note that at least 56 agencies have not updated their FOIA regulations since Congress passed major changes to the law in 2007, and the Justice Department’s regulations have not been updated since 2003. Some agencies, they found, may be violating changes made under the 2007 law concerning fee waivers and the 1996 law that requires frequently requested records to be posted online.
Delays in responding to FOIA requests across the government also continue to plague the administration. The Homeland Security Department, for example, receives 27 percent of all FOIA requests, but is responsible for more than 50 percent of the 83,490 backlogged requests, the committee found.
• Susan Crabtree can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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