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Excuses! Officials Say They Get Too Many Information Requests

Government agencies have accumulated large backlogs of Freedom of Information Act requests because of tight budgets and the increasing number and complexity of inquiries, officials told a House committee Wednesday.

Agencies could improve processing of FOIA requests, but face tough challenges, chief FOIA officers for five government agencies told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

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

The ranking Democrat sympathized with the officials’ challenges.

“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.”

Department of Justice Office of Information Policy Director Melanie Ann Pustay noted that in 2014 “the government overall reported its lowest staffing levels dedicated to FOIA in the past six fiscal years.”

Department of State Assistant Secretary of Administration Joyce Barr said the 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.

Chaffetz noted 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,” he continued.

Rep. Tim Walberg saw another issue as the cause of the backlog.

“I’m convinced that FOIA isn’t the problem,” the Michigan Republican said. “The increasing size and control of the government is the problem. Why wouldn’t we expect a huge, huge number of FOIA requests?”

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?”

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