[Congressional Record Volume 162, Number 93 (Monday, June 13, 2016)]
[Pages S3823-S3824]


  Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, the Freedom of Information Act, our 
Nation's premier transparency law, is on the eve of its 50th 
anniversary, July 4, 2016. It is fitting that FOIA shares its birthday 
with our Republic itself. Our democracy is built upon the principle 
that a government of, by, and for the people cannot be one that is 
hidden from them. Today we recommit ourselves to this ideal by sending 
to the President the FOIA Improvement Act. This bill, which I 
coauthored with Senator Cornyn, ushers in the most significant reforms 
to FOIA since its enactment 50

[[Page S3824]]

years ago. With the House's unanimous passage of our legislation today, 
we ensure FOIA will remain strong for another 50 years.
  First and foremost, the FOIA Improvement Act codifies a ``presumption 
of openness,'' putting the force of law behind the notion that 
sunshine, not secrecy, is the default setting of our government. This 
is the same language President Obama laid out in his historic 
memorandum in 2009 and which now applies to government agencies. This 
policy was first put into place by President Bill Clinton, but then it 
was reversed by President George W. Bush. President Obama reinstated it 
as one of his first acts in office. However, self-imposed executive 
orders provide the executive branch overly-broad latitude in adhering 
to its letter and spirit. We must remember, the executive branch 
uniquely conducts much of its business behind closed doors, which is 
why we need strong legislation ensuring accountability and 
transparency. By codifying the ``presumption of openness,'' we ensure 
that all future administrations operate under the presumption that 
government information belongs in the hands of the people.
  Furthermore, our bill provides the Office of Government Information 
Services--OGIS--an office Senator Cornyn and I created in the OPEN 
Government Act of 2007--additional authority to operate more 
independently and communicate freely with Congress how FOIA is 
operating and what improvements can be made. And to bring FOIA into the 
digital age, our bill creates a singular online portal through which 
the American public can submit FOIA requests and requires the proactive 
online disclosure of frequently requested records.
  The reforms in our bill enjoy broad bipartisan support. The Senate 
has unanimously voted for our FOIA Improvement Act twice. Last 
Congress, the Democratically controlled Senate unanimously passed this 
bill, but Republican leaders in the House failed to bring it up. 
Senator Cornyn and I promptly reintroduced our legislation, which 
passed the Senate earlier this year, and finally, the House has 
followed suit. The legislative branch has now spoken in one voice, 
reaffirming its commitment to the American people's right to know what 
their government is doing. I urge President Obama to swiftly sign our 
bill into law in time for FOIA's 50th anniversary.
  The FOIA Improvement Act is undoubtedly a legislative achievement 
worth celebrating. However, we must not rest on our laurels. Just as we 
are about to bring more sunshine into the halls of power with this new 
law, the National Defense Authorization Act, S. 2943, being considered 
by the Senate, threatens to cast a shadow over our efforts.
  Without ever consulting the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has 
exclusive jurisdiction over FOIA, the Senate Armed Services Committee 
included provisions in the NDAA that directly undermine central pillars 
of FOIA. One particularly egregious provision is so broadly drafted 
that it could create a wholesale carveout of the Department of Defense 
from our Nation's transparency and accountability regime. If enacted 
into law, this could empower the Pentagon to withhold a nearly 
limitless amount of information from the American public. For example, 
the Pentagon could withhold the legal justifications for drone strikes 
against U.S. citizens, preventing the American people from knowing the 
legal basis upon which their government can employ lethal force against 
them. It could withhold from disclosure documents memorializing 
civilian killings by U.S. forces, depriving the American people of 
knowledge about the human cost of wars fought in their name. And if 
enacted, the Pentagon could withhold information about sexual assaults 
in the military, masking the true extent of sexual violence against 
soldiers who risk their lives defending our country. I will continue to 
oppose inclusion of this provision in the final NDAA.
  Fifty years from now, on FOIA's centennial anniversary, the next 
generation will look back to this moment. They will gauge our 
commitment to creating a government that is open to its people. With 
today's passage of the bipartisan FOIA Improvement Act, we have chosen 
to let the sunshine in.