WASHINGTON – Federal agencies are struggling to keep up with the growing number of requests for public information, raising questions in Congress about the Obama administration's dedication to transparency.
The backlog of unfulfilled requests for documents has doubled since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, according to a recent report by the Justice Department. The number of requests also has spiked.
"The president has committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "But that's not the case" in filling requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
Chaffetz cited examples of people waiting years for documents, only to have their requests denied. In other cases, federal agencies blacked out information that was public elsewhere. One document produced by the Federal Communications Commission blacked out a news release already publicly released, Chaffetz said.
Chaffetz's committee wrapped up two days of hearings on the FOIA on Wednesday, with some Republican members chastising federal officials responsible for disclosing public information.
"You're part of the problem," said Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga.
Officials from the Departments of State, Justice, Homeland Security and Treasury testified, along with an official from the IRS.
Several Democrats came to their defense, noting that budget cuts have left fewer workers to process information requests.
"Logic tells you that when you have less people and you've got more demand, you're going to have problems," said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee's top Democrat.
Governmentwide, the backlog of requests went from 77,000 in 2009 to nearly 160,000 in 2014, according to the Justice Department report.
The increase coincided with a jump in requests. In 2009, the federal government received almost 558,000 requests for information. In 2014, the number increased to more than 714,000.
At the same time, the number of staff working full time on information requests dropped from a high of 4,400 in 2011 to about 3,800 in 2014.
Melanie Ann Pustay, the director of the department's office of information policy, said the administration has improved training and made some progress.
"First, the majority of agencies — 72 out of 100 — were able to maintain low backlogs of fewer than 100 requests," Pustay said. "Notably, 59 of these agencies had a backlog of less than 20 requests, including 29 that reported having no backlog at all."
Agencies with a backlog of more than 1,000 requests were required to come up with a plan to reduce them, she said.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest chided Congress for exempting congressional records from the law.
"In the last fiscal year, the administration processed 647,000 FOIA requests that we received from the public," Earnest said. "I would note that that is 647,000 more FOIA requests than were processed by the United States Congress."
The IRS set up a special team to handle a surge in information requests in 2013 after the agency disclosed that agents had inappropriately singled out conservative political groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status, said Mary Howard, director of the agency's disclosure division.
In addition to public requests, the IRS team produced more than 1 million pages of documents to investigators from four congressional committees, the agency's inspector general and the Justice Department — at a cost of about $20 million, Howard said.
Chaffetz issued a subpoena for Howard to appear at Wednesday's hearing after IRS officials said they would rather send Commissioner John Koskinen.
Chaffetz said he wanted to hear from the agency's expert on responding to information requests. The IRS said Koskinen was the most appropriate witness because the hearing covered issues that went beyond the scope of Howard's office.
The other four officials appeared voluntarily.
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