by Seth Maddox

February 2, 2011

Congressman Darrell Issa, the Republican Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, sent a letter to 180 federal agencies requesting electronic documentation of every FOIA request received over the past five years including the requester’s name, date of the request, and a brief description of the documents requested. He set a deadline of February 15 for the agencies to deliver the information. While the efforts have drawn praise from some government openness advocates, concerns have been raised over the benefits of accruing so much information on individuals issuing FOIA requests. The New York Times quotes one journalism professor as saying, “it seems sort of creepy that one person in the government could track who is looking into what and what kinds of questions they are asking.” On a more pragmatic level, Elijah Cummings, Mr. Issa’s Democratic nemesis on the Oversight Committee, has expressed the difficulty imposed on federal agencies who have to produce this information. Cummings’ spokesperson claims, “I cannot even begin to imagine how much paper, how much work, and how much overtime this is going to cost the Federal Government…Is this seriously the biggest problem he believes this nation has?”

Issa, who seems to have a less than pleasant working relationship with Cummings, claims the information gathered will be used to monitor government FOIA compliance rather than to accrue information regarding the individuals making requests. Additionally, it is useful to point out that many agencies already publish similar information online identifying the names of requesters and documents requested. On the practical difficulties of agencies complying with his request, Issa’s spokeperson retorts, “What’s particularly ironic about that argument is that’s the same argument some people could make about why there shouldn’t be FOIA access. ‘Geez it’s going to take so much time to get this information together.”

Personal views on Issa are quite mixed, and generally fall along partisan lines. He has consistently drawn criticism from the left for his ostensibly brash leadership and desire to investigate partisan issues, such as government spending and TARP, while failing to pursue other matters such as the BP oil spill. The New Yorker has recently published a detailed discussion of some of his questionable past dealings. Given his background in the automotive alarm and audio industry, he has even been criticized by Noise Free America for being the “king of loud, violent noisemaking in the United States.” Still, Danielle Brian, director of the Project on Government Oversight has summarized Issa’s chairmanship fairly favorably saying, “There’s no doubt that he’s partisan. I think Democrats minimize his work as just being partisan, but I firmly believe that he is genuine in his interest in good government and transparency.”

Thomas Blanton, Director of our very own Archive, has weighed in on Issa’s request, claiming “anytime Congress asks agencies for information, it will elevate FOIA performance in that agency heads will see that Congress is watching. Then the agency heads might give FOIA offices more attention and resources.” On the negative side, Blanton expresses concern that Issa gives less time (20 calendar days) than is required by FOIA (20 working days), which may be quite burdensome for the individual agencies.

In other news, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission has began publishing a slew of documents related to the financial crisis on its online archive. They also have a useful glossary in case you (like me) need help with terms like “term asset-backed securities loan facility” or “synthetic collateralized debt obligation.”