Congress has finally adopted legislation that promises to cut through much of the red tape and outright obstructionism that often hampers requests for public information under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Among other things, the bill sets up a tracking system for FOIA requests that take longer than 10 days to process. It also penalizes agencies for sluggish responses to requests for information (which have been known to drag on for 20 years).

The legislation establishes an ombudsman's office at the National Security Archive, the non-government research institute and library located at George Washington University. The office will be charged with issuing opinions, developing best practices and mediating disputes between citizens and federal agencies about unfulfilled FOIA requests — a promising alternative to time-consuming and costly lawsuits.
The legislation gives agencies a strong incentive to respond promptly to FOIA requests. An agency that receives a request will have a 20-day deadline to respond. Agencies missing that deadline will be automatically denied the right to bill for research or copying expenses.

Finally, the legislation gives members of the public who sue agencies over their FOIA requests a better chance at collecting for their attorney's fees.

The Bush administration, whose penchant for secrecy is probably the best-known secret in Washington, has opposed this measure in its earlier incarnations. This time, it's expected to pass. We thank Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas for championing a measure whose common-sense reforms will ease the flow of information into the public arena, where it belongs.

Freeing Flow Of Information --