Dec 8, 2014 · 2 minutes

[Update 12/9: Rockefeller removed his hold on the bill, which has now passed the Senate.]

A bill meant to improve the government's support for the Freedom of Information Act has been put on hold, dashing chances of it being passed during the lame-duck session and making some of the most substantial reform under the "do-nothing Congress" little more than a failed dream. And it's all because of one person: Sen. Jay Rockefeller.

The Democrat from West Virgnia defended his objection to the bill with a statement claiming he has a "long record of support for open government and the FOIA process." But the reform bill as it's currently written, he states, could have the "unintended consequence of harming our ability to enforce the many important federal laws that protect American consumers from financial fraud and other abuses," so it must be delayed.

That objection comes despite the fact that the House unanimously passed a similar reform bill in June and is expected to pass this one as well. The Senate Judiciary Committee also unanimously passed this bill after it removed a provision that "would have created a balancing test that would weigh the importance of disclosure against a federal agency's interest in protecting documents that deal with the government's deliberative process," as the Hill first reported in November.

In addition to the creation of a council that would help agencies comply with the Freedom of Information Act, the reform bill also calls for the agencies to be biased toward disclosing any information unless it falls under specific exemptions or threatens national security.

Patrice McDermott, the executive director of the OpenTheGovernment advocacy group, released the following statement in response to Rockefeller's secret, last-minute hold of the bill:

We encourage Senator Rockefeller to reconsider his hold on the bipartisan FOIA Improvement Act, S. 2520, and release the bill as soon as possible. The benefits of this critical reform bill far outweigh any nebulous concerns about unintended consequences, all of which can be addressed by the Senate as they pass the bill. S. 2520 was passed unanimously by the Judiciary Committee and is set to be taken up by the House as soon as it clears the Senate. It is also widely supported by a range of groups that cross the political spectrum and represent a wide range of interests. Senator Rockefeller should not remain the sole holdout that stops our ability to make the federal government more open and accountable.
Rockefeller is expected to retire at the end of this year.

[photo by Vinoth Chandar]