Politics

Too Many Information Request Bog Down Agencies, Officials Say

Daily Caller News Foundation logo
Ethan Barton Managing Editor

Government agencies have growing backlogs of unanswered Freedom of Information Act requests because of tight budgets, a flood of new requests and greater complexity of inquiries, officials told a House committee Wednesday, but a Republican member of the panel pointed to growing government as the problem.

Agencies could improve their processing of FOIA requests, but are hindered by lack of resources, chief FOIA officers for five government agencies told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Department of Justice Office of Information Policy Director Melanie Ann Pustay, for example, said 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 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 even 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 behind the backlog.

“I’m convinced that FOIA isn’t the problem,” Walberg said. “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.

Cummings added: “You do have a critical responsibility, which is to make federal records available to the American public as efficiently as possible.”

“The agencies before the committee today need to bring sunshine to their FOIA programs,” said Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. He noted that the backlog of FOIA requests has doubled since President Barack Obama took office.

Chaffetz pointed out that Howard had to be subpoenaed to appear before the committee.

“We will drag the IRS up here every single week if we have to,” he said. “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?”

Follow Ethan on Twitter

Content created by The Daily Caller News Foundation is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a large audience. For licensing opportunities of our original content, please contact licensing@dailycallernewsfoundation.org.

Content created by The Daily Caller News Foundation is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a large audience. For licensing opportunities of our original content, please contact licensing@dailycallernewsfoundation.org.