FOIA Changes Would Create Watchdog to Handle Government Non-Compliance

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) is introducing changes to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that are expected to prevent the federal government from hiding information about skyrocketing spending.

The bill is titled the “Watchdog Act” and will create a new officer described as the Director of Open Government (“DOG”) to “hound” federal agencies. The DOG’s job would be to serve as the primary resource for Americans who have requested records regarding government spending but have been stonewalled by bureaucrats.

Public records requests pursuant to FOIA have grown substantially in the last decade. At the same time, failures to respond in a timely manner with accurate and complete information have become an increasingly common problem. The original FOIA process appears to be insufficient in protecting openness in government.

The DOG would regularly monitor and evaluate each federal agency’s “timeliness” in responding to requests and how complete and accurate the information provided is. The DOG would give each agency a numbered grade based on its performance under FOIA. The grading would show the public which agencies are noncompliant and would promote accurate grading by allowing side-by-side comparisons to tracking information gathered by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and non-governmental watchdog organizations.

As the FOIA is currently organized, the only resource Americans have to address the government’s failure to disclose records is through lawsuits in federal court. That takes most citizens out of the process due to time and money. The new bill would allow Americans to go to the office of the DOG to address failures to comply with FOIA. Ernst said that the new office will be fully funded with dollars already allocated to the Office of Management and Budget.

Ernst said that she decided to take action after it became obvious that the National Institutes of Health had not properly disclosed its financial arrangements with EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

She said that the Watchdog Act will embolden citizens to expose government corruption and excesses through the new resource that will place “someone on their side” with authority and responsibility.

Ernst added that the best way to restore trust in government is by “shining a light on what’s really going on in Washington.”