House Unanimously Passes FOIA Reform

February 26, 2014

By Elizabeth Holland

Last night, the House of Representatives voted 410-0 to pass the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act (H.R. 1211) nearly a year after the bill was introduced. AALL joined a number of organizations earlier this week in a show of support for the bill, which would put into the law the “presumption of openness” established in President Barack Obama’s Open Government Memorandum, subsequent Open Government Directive, and Attorney General Eric Holder’s FOIA memorandum.

The FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act includes enhancements to the authority of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS); establishes a Chief FOIA Officers Council to review compliance with the act and to recommend improvements; encourages more proactive disclosure; and advances the creation of a central, online portal for making FOIA requests and checking on the status of those requests.

Following yesterday’s unanimous vote, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VI) tweeted about the “big win for #OpenGov.” He said in a statement, “Transparency in government is a critical part of restoring trust and the House will continue to work to make government more transparent and accessible to all Americans. By expanding the FOIA process online, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act creates greater transparency and continues our open government efforts in the House.”

The bill now moves on to the Senate, where a similar FOIA reform bill passed unanimously last Congress.


Guest Post: Why I Advocate

February 24, 2014

By Melanie Knapp, 2012-2013 Chair of AALL’s Government Relations Committee

On March 27, AALL’s Government Relations Office will host its second Lobby Day in Washington, D.C. As the former chair of AALL’s Government Relations Committee and a District of Columbia resident, I encourage you to attend this special event in our nation’s beautiful capital.

In our democracy, it is our right to visit our elected representatives and have them understand what is important to us. Members of Congress rely on many factors to help them make their decisions: their own knowledge of an issue; spirited debate with colleagues; the urging of party leadership; e-mails, letters, and telephone calls from constituents; and lobbyists on both sides of an issue. Obviously, no legislator can be an expert on every subject. Research shows, however, that nothing is more influential to a member of Congress than meetings with his or her constituents. Our legislators are grateful to be educated by their constituents in-the-know—that is, the people who elected them who are also experts on a particular issue. This kind of civic engagement leads to more efficient and effective decision-making.

In July 2009, I attended the AALL’s Day on The Hill event before the AALL Annual Meeting and Conference. The experience was incredibly valuable to me, both personally and professionally. Though I had done a lot of advocacy as an environmental attorney in Austin, Texas—I had spoken in court, at city council meetings, at meetings of federal and state agencies, and at many public gatherings and rallies—I had never visited the halls of Congress in Washington. I was intimidated!

The Day on the Hill taught me the skills and information I needed to boost my confidence and advocate successfully. Just as you will at the March 27 Lobby Day, I heard from experts about methods for communicating my positions effectively and practiced key talking points on the issues of the day. In the afternoon, I partnered with a fellow Ohioan (my home state at the time) to visit my members of Congress’s offices. We spoke with legislative aides about our personal experiences as law librarians and the policy issues affecting us. And, I found, it was actually a lot of fun. The key to feeling comfortable visiting your Congress member is practice, and that’s exactly what I did at the Day on the Hill. I’ve since visited the Hill again. With each meeting, advocacy becomes easier and I feel more comfortable.

On March 27, you’ll have the same opportunity to practice this vital part of the democratic process. You’ll learn all the tricks, tips, and talking points you’ll need to feel confident expressing your views. Walking through the same buildings as our lawmakers will give you a sense of pride and strength knowing you are there to make a difference for yourself, your patrons, and your law libraries.

I hope you’ll join me, the Government Relations Office staff, and other seasoned and budding AALL advocates on March 27 to practice advocacy. I guarantee it will be fun!

The AALL Lobby Day is open to all AALL and chapter members and registration is free of cost. For more information, visit http://aallnet.org/Home-page-contents/Events/lobbyday2014.html. To register, please email Elizabeth Holland at eholland@aall.org by March 1.


Progress Report: Checking in on Federal Legislative Priorities

February 21, 2014

By Elizabeth Holland

The House and Senate were on recess this week, but there have been several updates to our 113th Congress Bill Tracking Chart recently. Here’s where we’ve seen progress on AALL’s federal legislative priorities:

  • As we reported in this month’s Washington E-Bulletin, legislation has been introduced to restore the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) net neutrality rules. The Open Internet Preservation Act (H.R. 3982, S.1981) has gained 27 co-sponsors in the House and 6 co-sponsors in the Senate since its early February introduction. This week, Chairman Tom Wheeler said the FCC will propose new net neutrality rules in the late spring or early summer, after soliciting public comment.
  • With Sunshine Week just around the corner, open government advocates in Congress will use the coming weeks as an opportunity to highlight legislation on oversight and transparency. As such, AALL has renewed its push on ACMRA, the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act (H.R. 1380), joining a broad coalition of organizations on a letter calling on House leadership to consider the bipartisan bill at the earliest opportunity.
  • Thanks to the successful The Day We Fight Back campaign, the USA FREEDOM Act (H.R. 3361, S. 1599) has gained significant sponsorship in the House and Senate. Both chambers’ Judiciary Committees, which have jurisdiction over the bills, held hearings related to NSA surveillance reform this month, though the leadership of both committees appear to be waiting for a clear signal from the administration before moving forward.
  • Last but not least is a new addition to our chart: AALL supports the recently introduced Senate bill to rename the Government Printing Office to the Government Publishing Office, the Government Publishing Office Act of 2014 (S. 1947). The bill has been referred to the Committee on Rules and Administration.

As Congress returns to work, expect to see more updates to our bill tracking chart in the coming days and weeks. We also encourage you to check out the newly updated Congress.gov, which got some great new features and improvements this week.  An Advanced Search and Browse feature are now available and the Appropriations Table from THOMAS has returned.


DOJ Seeks Input for Third Open Government Plan

February 18, 2014

By Elizabeth Holland

Federal agencies are currently developing their third open government plans per President Obama’s Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government and the Open Government Directive. As part of the process, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is seeking input and new ideas from the public for its plan. AALL’s Government Relations Office (GRO) and Government Relations Committee (GRC) are working together to submit recommendations to DOJ.

Previous DOJ open government plans included initiatives like creating of FOIA.gov and FARA.gov, posting its digitized legislative histories for public use, and establishing a quarterly Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reporting requirement.  The GRO and GRC participated in past audits of the plans, organized by OpenTheGovernment.org, and have worked closely with DOJ to ensure the plans were effectively implemented.

To submit input for DOJ’s next open government plan, send your ideas to AALL Director of Government Relations Emily Feltren at efeltren@aall.org by February 24, 2014.


Where’s the Federal Budget?

February 13, 2014

By Elizabeth Holland

After a two-hour contentious vote, the Senate agreed yesterday to raise the nation’s borrowing limit, without any conditions, until March 2015. Earlier in the week, House Speaker John Boehner conceded to bring a “clean” debt ceiling increase to the floor for passage with Democratic support after failing to rally his conference behind a modest Republican offset proposal. President Obama will likely sign the bill before the week’s end.

So, crisis averted?

Not quite.

While the debt ceiling compromise ensures our nation will not default on its debt in the immediate future, the real bulk of Congress’s budgetary work—Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 budget and appropriations—is just beginning and is, unsurprisingly, already behind schedule. However, with the impending midterm elections, recent budget deal, and fallout over the last year’s budget crisis still looming large, Congress may attempt to restore normalcy in this year’s budget process. If all goes as planned, here’s what you can expect in the coming months:

The President’s Budget

Traditionally, the president submits his budget to Congress by the first Monday in February, per federal law. As has been in the case in recent years, President Obama’s FY 2015 (Oct. 1- Sept. 30) budget will be unveiled late; the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said we can expect to see the first part on March 4. The president’s budget is a proposal (not law) that’s submitted as a request to Congress. The president creates his request through a process of coordination between OMB and federal agencies. Based on the policy priorities of the president and his cabinet, OMB gives guidelines to federal agencies instructing them how to prepare their strategic plans and budgets. Agencies in turn then submit budget requests to OMB, which OMB compiles into the president’s budget request. This process can actually begin as early as spring of the prior year, when agencies work on a series of documents and tables that provide information on the agency’s budget needs and explain how resources will be used.

Budget Resolutions

Once the president has submitted his budget request to Congress, the House and Senate budget committees begin working on a budget resolution. Budget resolutions are essentially blueprints or guidelines for spending that the budget committees give to the appropriators.  To create these blueprints, the budget committees typically hold public hearings in March and April at which they receive testimony about the president’s budget proposals from Administration officials, outside experts, trade associations and other interest groups, Members of Congress, and the general public.

Discretionary vs. Mandatory Spending

Budget resolutions set the total federal and spending levels for discretionary spending but do not determine funding for specific programs. That’s the work of the appropriators. Discretionary spending is the part of the federal budget that must be appropriated every single year. This covers anything from programs in transportation to education, administration of justice, general science and technology, the environment, etc. It also includes the budget of many agencies we care a lot about—including the Government Printing Office, National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress,. Oppositely, mandatory spending is exempt from the appropriations process. It covers automatic spending programs like social security and Medicare. There may be some fluctuation in the amount of mandatory spending each year dependant on the number of people eligible for these programs, but in general mandatory spending is about 2/3 of the budget, discretionary spending is about 1/3 of the budget, the majority of which is military spending.

Once the budget committees complete their work, the budget resolutions go to the House and Senate floors, where they can be amended by a majority vote. The budget resolution is a “concurrent” congressional resolution, not an ordinary bill, and therefore does not go to the president for his signature or veto. It also requires only a majority vote to pass, and its consideration is one of the few actions that cannot be filibustered in the Senate.

The budget resolution is supposed to be passed by April 15, but it often takes longer. Occasionally, Congress does not pass a budget resolution. If that happens, the previous year’s resolution, which is a multi-year plan, stays in effect.

Appropriations

A House-Senate conference then resolves any differences, and a conference report is passed by both houses. The budget resolutions then enter the appropriations process. The Bipartisan Budget Act agreed to in December 2013 set spending caps for both FY 2014 and FY 2015, which may make the FY 2015 appropriations process easier than it has been in recent years.  The cap for FY 2015 is $1.014 trillion for discretionary spending, compared to $1.012 trillion for FY2014.

While the budget resolution set goals for spending levels, appropriations bills actually provide this money to agencies. The appropriations committees receive a single allocation for all its programs (referred to as a 302(a) allocation). It must then decide how to divide that lump sum among its 12 subcommittees. The allocations to the subcommittees are referred to as 302(b) allocations and they are really a key decision point in the budget process; 302(b) allocations determine how much spending is allocated to defense vs. health research vs. food safety vs. law enforcement vs. the Government Printing Office (GPO), etc.

As you can imagine, there are a lot of competing priorities in the appropriations subcommittee process. Relevant to our work are the subcommittees on the Legislative Branch, which covers GPO and the Library of Congress; Financial Services, which handles the National Archives; Labor, Health and Human Services, which covers the Institute of Museum and Library Services; and Commerce, Justice and Science, which handles the Legal Services Corporation.

Once they receive their 302(b) allocations, the appropriations subcommittees “mark-up” appropriations bills for the upcoming fiscal year.  Subcommittees are critical to examining agency programs through public hearings, and recommending funding levels that dictate what agencies will have the resources to do.  The subcommittees review agency budget request and receive testimony from agency heads. Subcommittees will often receive written or oral testimony from public interest groups like AALL, as well. The chairman and ranking minority member of the subcommittees use these letters and testimony to determine funding levels for the agencies under their jurisdiction. The subcommittee then votes on these levels, and when the members come to agreement, the bills go back to the full appropriations committees for consideration.

Following full committee action, appropriations bills travel to the House and Senate floor, respectively, for consideration by the full chamber. The Budget Act of 1974 (Pub.L. 93–344, 2 U.S.C. §§ 601–688) sets June 10 as a target date to have completed the House Appropriations Committee’s work on its appropriations bills; however, the committee usually begins to report its bills in May or June, finishing all or most of the bills by July or by the annual recess in August.

Typically, appropriations bills are first considered by the House. When the appropriations bill is on the floor of the House, Representatives debate the bill and offer amendments after hearing opening statements from the chair and the ranking minority member of the subcommittee for which the bill applies. After the bill is passed, it is sent to the Senate, which considers and amends the House-passed bill. In contrast to the House, the Senate doesn’t consider floor amendments in the order of the bill.  Senators may propose amendments to any portion of the bill at any time.

Once the Senate has made its changes, a conference committee must be formed to reconcile the differences between the House and the Senate versions of the bill. These negotiations usually take place between the chair and ranking minority members of the full Appropriations Committees, as well as the members of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the bill. Upon reaching an agreement, the bill is once again sent to the chambers, both of which generally accept the conference report.

Bill to Law

Just as for any bill, the president may: approve the appropriations bill by signing it so that it becomes a law; veto the bill; or take no action for ten days— if Congress is in session, the bill automatically becomes a law and if Congress has adjourned, the bill has been “pocket-vetoed” and dies.

The Unknowns

Agency budgets will again be subject to sequestration in 2015, though the Bipartisan Budget Act (Pub.L. 113–67) did lessen the load. Congress may act to reduce the budget cuts even further, though the exact implementation and effect of the across the board cuts is hard to project. Still, following the uncertainty of ambiguous and short term budgets over the past several years, agencies including GPO, the Library of Congress, and National Archives and Records Administration may be better able to undertake new projects and continue scheduled activities in this improved budget climate.

Opportunities for Action

As always, the Government Relations Office will call on AALL members to advocate for full FY 2015 funding for those agencies whose work ensures public access to information, so stay tuned for future calls for action this year. Appropriations subcommittees in particular have the ability to influence Congress’s view of agencies work and priorities. Check your members of Congress’s committee assignments using our Legislative Action Center and let us know if they serve on one of the subcommittees mentioned in this post. Then, stay tuned for future budget updates, action alerts, and opportunities to favorably influence the budget process this year!


Take Action: The Day We Fight Back Against Mass Surveillance

February 11, 2014

By Elizabeth Holland

Today, we join thousands of companies, organizations, and websites in The Day We Fight Back, a day of protest and action against NSA surveillance.  AALL members are encouraged to take action in support of the USA FREEDOM Act (S.1599, H.R.3361), a bipartisan bill that would limit government spying authority and begin to restore our privacy and rights under the Constitution.

In response to the recent and ongoing revelations that government surveillance of Americans under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) has been far broader than generally understood, the USA FREEDOM Act would legislatively clarify the limits on the collection and use of Americans’ information. The bill would help restore confidence in the intelligence community by amending the USA PATRIOT Act and FISA Amendments Act of 2008 to better protect Americans’ privacy and require greater oversight, transparency, and accountability with respect to domestic surveillance authorities.

AALL believes the government has a responsibility to protect the privacy of library users and calls for effective oversight of those laws which expand surveillance on library users. We urge Congress to take action in support of the USA Freedom Act to provide meaningful reform.

Have 5 minutes to spare? Using our Legislative Action Center, you can easily urge your members of Congress to co-sponsor the USA FREEDOM Act by sending a customized message to their offices and fight back against mass surveillance.


AALL Again Urges Reform to Incorporation by Reference System

February 6, 2014

By Elizabeth Holland

As detailed in Emily’s recent post, “Congress Considers the Scope of Copyright,” AALL has consistently urged for reform of the incorporation by reference system to allow for greater openness and transparency. Following up on our June 2012 request to the Office of Management and Budget, AALL signed on to a January 31 coalition letter to request the Office of the Federal Register (OFR) issue a final rule that goes beyond the meager changes in the Notice Of Proposed Rulemaking and requires that standards incorporated by reference in proposed rules and in final rules be available for free on the Internet.

As the letter states, AALL “strongly believes that standards incorporated by reference into federal regulations should be widely available to the public, without charge, and that such standards should be deemed in the public domain rather than subject to copyright restrictions.” Twenty groups signed on to the letter, which was sent in response to the OFR’s proposed rule  to amend regulations governing the approval of agency requests to incorporate material by reference into the Code of Federal Regulations.


February Washington E-Bulletin

February 3, 2014

The February issue of the Washington E-Bulletin is now available on AALLNET.

IN THIS ISSUE

Vol. 2014, Issue 02

A LOOK AHEAD

ACT NOW

AALL IN THE STATES

ROUNDUP AND REVIEW


Farm Bill Moves Forward Without Anti-Transparency Language

February 3, 2014

By Elizabeth Holland

We’re pleased to the report that, after pressure from powerful members of Congress and the open government community, the farm bill moved forward last week without the proposed provisions to cut off public access to information about agricultural and livestock information.  On January 29, the House approved by a vote of 251 to 166 the Agricultural Act of 2014 (H. Rept. 113-333), the Senate-House conference report to replace the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, which expired on October 1, 2013.

Language originally included in the House-passed bill would have prohibited disclosure of information about any owner, operator, or employee of an agricultural or livestock operation. The public— particularly neighbors of such operations— requires access to information about the operations to ensure their health and safety. This language would have undermined the Freedom of Information Act’s (FOIA) goal of transparency and extended personal privacy protections to corporate farms. On November 6, 2013, AALL joined more than 40 organizations in urging members of the conference committee on the Farm Bill not to include the harmful language.

AALL has joined several organizations on letters of thanks to Senator Patrick Leahy and Congressmen Elijah Cummings and Henry Waxman for their support and leadership in removing the provisions in the final version. We expect the conference report will be debated and voted upon in the Senate shortly.


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