WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is “in la la land” when it comes to its policies on processing Freedom of Information Act requests, according to a top House Republican.
In back-to-back hearings spanning two days, the House Oversight and Government Reforms Committee scrutinized the administration’s practices over FOIA requests -- a tool that allows the public to ask federal agencies for information or documents about any issue. It’s a resource commonly used by journalists, who rely on it to find data, emails, transcripts and other informations agencies would otherwise keep private.
On Wednesday, during the second marathon hearing held by the Oversight Committee this week, Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) expressed deep frustrations with agency officials.
Chaffetz pressed Melanie Anne Pustay, director of information policy for the Justice Department, on the credibility of a scorecard the department created to measure how well agencies handle FOIA programs. The agency had given itself a perfect score.
Referencing Tuesday’s hearing on FOIA transparency, which included testimony from 12 individuals representing news outlets, nonprofits and advocacy groups, Chaffetz said no one had been happy with the way FOIA requests were being handled.
“Are you kidding me? The DOJ gives themselves a five out of five on proactive disclosure? You really think anybody in the world believes the Department of Justice is at the top of their game?” Chaffetz said.
“I do. I absolutely do,” Pustay responded.
“Man, you live in la la land, you live in fantasy land, 'cause it ain’t working,” Chaffetz interjected. “We are at the heart of why I think there is a problem: Because you all thing you’re doing a great job.”
Chaffetz said that since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, roughly 550,000 requests had been rejected.
Earlier this year, an Associated Press report revealed the administration had set a record again for restricting access to government files. The analysis found that the backlog of FOIA requests grew in 2014 by 55 percent, and the government cut 9 percent of the full-time employees dedicated to search for records.
Frustration with the administration crossed party lines on Wednesday as Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said the testimony heard by the committee during the two-day hearing series vastly contradicted each other.
During testimonies from the American Civil Liberties Union, The New York Times, Vice News and other groups on Tuesday, lawmakers said everyone shared stories of FOIA requests going unanswered well past the 20-day window the law permits, including a number of requests that stretched on for years.
“You are going to have to help me help you. I said I wanted you all to get back to me with information as to things that we could do to make things better. Kind of hard to do that when you think you’re almost perfect, though -- I’m serious,” Cummings said.
“We have to be frank with each other and begin to set some goals,” he added.
A number of Democrats on the committee cited budget cuts while defending those testifying Wednesday, which included officials from the IRS, State Department and Treasury.
Still, the panel is looking to push a FOIA reform bill to the House floor to improve the programs.