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Should FOIA apply to Congress? Rep. McGovern 'looking into it'

House Rules Committee chairman Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., speaks at the impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump in 2019.
U.S. House Television

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern says he's open to making the federal Freedom of Information Act apply to congressional offices.

Currently the public records law does not cover members of Congress or their staffs, as well the White House or federal courts.

McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, toldThe Fabulous 413 he would be "generally" in favor of changing that, but does not want to release personal information shared by people who write to his office seeking help.

"I think if we can figure out a standard to protect people's privacy, who reach out to our office, I'm generally for as much transparency and openness as possible, whether it's in our campaign fundraising or in the work that we do," McGovern said.

Information about campaign donations and expenses already must be disclosed.

McGovern's office said he's looking into introducing a bill to extend FOIA to Congress.

It was not clear from McGovern's answer on the show whether he would voluntarily provide public records, even without a change to the law. His office declined to comment on that question.

The offices of Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, as well as Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., did not respond to requests for their positions on a FOIA expansion.

It's possible extending FOIA to Congress wouldn't lead to much additional disclosure beyond what's already publicly available. The law includes exemptions for "pre-decisional" documents such as drafts and proposals.

“What would you get if you applied FOIA to Congress? The answer, I think, is nothing,” the American Bar Association's Thomas Susman toldGovernment Executive magazine.

State-level debate

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey has recently faced criticism for her office's position on public records request. The governor's office, as well as the Legislature and courts, are not subject to the state's public records law.

Healey previously said she would treat public records requests as if her office were subject to the law. Since taking office in January, however, Healey has refused requests for certain documents, citing an exemption not included in the law.

Releasing call logs and emails, Healey's office told the Boston Globe, "would unreasonably hinder the governor in effectively performing her duties."

The governor's office has also refused requests from WBUR and investigative journalist Andrew Quemere for documents produced during former Gov. Charlie Baker's administration.

“Gov. Healey remains focused on providing more transparency around public records and will continue to evaluate each request on an individual basis," a Healey spokesperson told WBUR.

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Sam Hudzik has overseen local news coverage on New England Public Media since 2013. He manages a team of about a dozen full- and part-time reporters and hosts.