A bipartisan group of congressional leaders — a group that includes Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa — said Tuesday that the Interior Department’s plan to clamp down on public records requests would undermine government transparency and, more importantly, potentially violate the Freedom of Information Act.
The group’s letter to Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the proposed changes to the rules governing public records requests “needlessly encroaches” on the right of Americans to access federal documents.
In addition to Grassley, the letter was signed by House Oversight Chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.; Senate Appropriations Vice Chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Senate Finance Committee.
“The proposed rule appears to restrict public access to DOI’s records and delay the processing of FOIA requests in violation of the letter and spirit of FOIA,” the letter said. “Rather than clarifying DOI’s FOIA process, the proposed rule would make the process more confusing and potentially expose it to politicization and unnecessary litigation.”
The lawmakers urged Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist nominated by President Donald Trump to serve as the agency’s permanent secretary, to reconsider the proposed rule “in the spirit of transparency and advancing the public’s right to know.”
The Interior Department has defended the rule changes as needed to address what it calls “exponential increase in records requests during the Trump administration.”
Among the changes being considered at the Interior Department is wording authorizing staff to reject records requests they deem “unreasonably burdensome” and impose monthly limits on the number of FOIA requests that can be filed by an individual.
The proposal would also replace the phrase “time limit” in the agency FOIA regulations with the term “time frame,” a change critics worry might allow staff to treat FOIA’s legally required time limits as mere guidelines.
Reporters, watchdog groups, nonprofits and other members of the public regularly use FOIA requests to gain information on government actions and decision-making. The new draft rule was issued by the Interior Department on Dec. 28, and a 30-day period for collecting public response expired in January.
More than 65,000 people, including representatives of The Associated Press and other news organizations, submitted comments about the proposed rule.
AP spokeswoman Lauren Easton said the news organization urges the Interior Department “to reconsider its proposal, which would greatly infringe upon the public’s right to know and understand the inner workings of its government.”
Given the background of Trump’s nominee to head the Interior Department, it’s more important than ever for Americans have access to department records.