Why, yes, that Obama administration disclosure memo has made government workers afraid of the White House

Say Republican Congressmen Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Jim Jordan (R-OH). Yesterday, the House Government Oversight Committee kicked off a two-day hearing on the Freedom of Information Act, and the White House’s compliance with those requests. There is a backlog, but some in the media who testified have said it isn’t due to Republican budget cuts–a point made by Democrats (via the Hill):

Launching a two-day hearing on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) blasted an email that directs federal agencies to consult with President Obama’s general counsel following any document request that could involve the White House.

“If you’ve got the yahoos at the White House having to review every document that falls under FOIA,” Chaffetz said. “This is the heart of the backlog.”

The memo, dated April 2009, applies to any documents that may have “White House equities.” Chaffetz suggested the memo is being used as an excuse to delay the release of documents.

“No, no, no, don’t fulfill the FOIA request,” Chaffetz said of the memo. “Send it here to the White House. We have equities! The White House equities!”

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said the memo has made federal employees fearful of crossing the White House.

“If the White House general counsel tells all general counsels at every federal agency, ‘Hey, hey, before you send anything, check with us,’ of course they’re going to redact it. They’re scared to death,” he said.

The White House also snapped back at criticisms of the FOIA compliance process, saying on Tuesday it was “justifiably proud” of its efforts to fulfill open records requests.

Press secretary Josh Earnest said the administration has responded to 647,000 requests in the last fiscal year, while noting Congress is exempt from a similar burden.

Jason Leopold, an investigative reporter at Vice News who testified as a witness, said during the hearing on Tuesday that FOIA offices have never cited budgetary constraints as a reason for delays or complications in fulfilling document requests.

“I’ve never heard of it impacting my ability to access records,” he said, while noting that it’s possible that it could have an effect.

The Obama administration has been denying FOIA requests at record rates, even going as far as scrapping all Executive Office requests in March. When this administration managed to release documents, it was done in a manner that was notably lethargic. The Associated Press reported that the government “acknowledged nearly 1 in 3 cases that its initial decisions to withhold or censor records were improper under the law, but when it was challenged.”

In March, AP’s CEO wrote how its becoming more difficult to use public records laws to keep government accountable.