In October, President Clinton signed the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996, often referred to as EFOIA. He noted that the legislation "brings FOIA into the information and electronic age," but added that "as the government actively disseminates more information, I hope that there will be less need to use FOIA to obtain government information." He concluded that "our country was founded on democratic principles of openness and accountability, and for 30 years FOIA has supported these principles. Today, the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 reforge an important link between the United States government and the American people."

Amendments to bring FOIA into the electronic age had been percolating slowly in Congress for the past six years, but it wasn't until some Republicans in the House of Representatives finally got interested that the bill began to move on a fast track. The bill had actually passed the Senate in the previous session, but the House essentially ignored it. When the Republicans won control of both Houses in 1994, a pet project of a leading Democratic Senator, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, was not considered a likely candidate for expeditious congressional action. Nevertheless, Leahy's staff slowly but cautiously moved the bill through the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it was poised for Senate approval if the House could be persuaded to act.

Because information policy has often broken down along ideological lines, with Democrats favoring greater access rights for citizens while Republicans supported tighter bureaucratic control of the flow of information, it came as something of a surprise that the fledgling House Government Management, Information and Technology Subcommittee began moving quickly to produce a bill after holding several days of hearings on information issues last June.

The House was unwilling to accept certain portions of the Senate bill, so the subcommittee made substantial revisions in the Senate bill and, essentially, told the Senate that if it wanted a bill it would have to settle for the House version. In a series of negotiations between House and Senate staff, the House revisions took hold with only minor changes. The House passed the amendments Sept. 17, with the Senate passing its own bill that evening and then passing the House bill the next day.

The amendments address two problem areas in the existing law. The most complicated and difficult of the two is the matter of delays in responding to requests. Congress decided to extend something of a carrot to the agencies, rolling back the statutory 10-day response times to 20 days. In return, requesters -- especially the press -- received expedited review provisions which allow for quicker processing when a requester persuades an agency that the subject matter of the request is of compelling public interest. There are also some added cumbersome administrative features that attempt to break the logjam of delays.

But of most interest to this audience are the electronic amendments. What once appeared to be a bold move forward now seems a bit old hat, but that is partially due to the nature of the legislative process and the inability to garner sufficient interest in the technological policy issues in either Congress or the Clinton administration. In other words, these amendments were not particularly high priority. Nevertheless, the legislation makes clear that electronic records are subject to the act and that a search for electronic records using software is no different -- for purposes of the law -- than a manual search for paper records.

The new legislation allows requesters to get electronic records in any format, regardless of whether the agency maintains them in that format, as long as such a request would not be unreasonably burdensome. Finally, the amendments require agencies to assess their most requested categories of records and make those records routinely available in electronic form.

Perhaps the most important contribution the

Harry Hammitt  |  Contributing Writer