WASHINGTON (AP) — A bipartisan group of congressional leaders said Tuesday that the Interior Department’s plan to clamp down on public records requests would undermine government transparency and potentially violate the Freedom of Information Act.
In a letter sent to Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the lawmakers said the proposed changes to the rules governing public records requests “needlessly encroaches” on the right of Americans to access federal documents. The letter was signed by Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; House Oversight Chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.; Senate Appropriations Vice Chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Senate Finance Committee.
“The proposed rule appears to restrict public access to DOI’s records and delay the processing of FOIA requests in violation of the letter and spirit of FOIA,” the lawmakers wrote. “Rather than clarifying DOI’s FOIA process, the proposed rule would make the process more confusing and potentially expose it to politicization and unnecessary litigation.”
The group urged Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist nominated by President Donald Trump to serve as the agency’s permanent secretary, to reconsider the proposed rule “in the spirit of transparency and advancing the public’s right to know.”
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The agency has said the rule changes are needed to address what it calls exponential increase in records requests during the Trump administration.
Reporters, watchdog groups, nonprofits and other members of the public routinely use FOIA requests to gain information on government actions and decision-making.
Among the changes now under consideration at Interior is wording authorizing staff to reject records requests they deem “unreasonably burdensome” and impose monthly limits on the number of FOIA requests that can be filed by an individual. The proposal would also replace the phrase “time limit” in the agency’s FOIA regulations with the term “time frame,” a subtle change critics worry might allow staff to treat FOIA’s legally required time limits as mere guidelines.
The new draft rule was issued by the department Dec. 28, and a 30-day period for collecting public response expired in January. More than 65,000 people submitted comments about the proposed rule.
Interior spokesman Alex Hinson said Tuesday he could not provide comment of specific provisions, since the rulemaking process is still underway.
“Those who have followed the issue understand that exponential increases in requests and litigation have overwhelmed the department’s capacity to timely process the public’s FOIA requests,” said Hinson, who added that the purpose of the changes has been “misunderstood.”
“We believe these changes will result in a more transparent, equitable, and accountable FOIA program,” he said.
The Associated Press was among a coalition of media outlets that voiced opposition to the changes last January.
At that time, AP spokeswoman Lauren Easton said the news organization urges the Interior Department “to reconsider its proposal, which would greatly infringe upon the public’s right to know and understand the inner workings of its government. AP condemns such restraint of public information and any move by a government agency to undermine transparency.”
Follow Associated Press investigative reporter Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck