Hill Democrats are outraged by a new Trump administration policy to ignore information requests from members and senators unless they come from committee or subcommittee chairs.
They argue it’s part of a broader pattern by the White House, designed to make the executive branch less responsive to Congress. And they say it effectively locks them out of information necessary for government oversight.
This effort is sometimes being aided by Republicans on Capitol Hill, or undertaken at their behest. For instance, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) has asked federal agencies to refuse to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests designed to find out what data his panel is seeking from those agencies.
Such FOIA inquiries are routinely made by journalists, lobbyists and political operatives. News organizations have strenuously objected to Hensarling’s demand.
But the latest initiative by the Trump administration — backed by a May 1, 2017, opinion drafted by the Office of Legal Counsel of the Justice Department — has crossed a once unthinkable line, Democrats argue.
Under this new policy, Democrats — as the minority party — would be limited in their ability to get information from the agencies unless the request was supported by a Republican chairmen. Since the GOP controls both the House and Senate, this would effectively give Republicans a veto over such information requests.
“We cannot do our jobs if the Trump administration adopts this unprecedented new policy of refusing to provide any information to Congress unless a request is backed by the implicit threat of a subpoena. This has never been the standard for responding to congressional inquiries — and it should not take the threat of a subpoena to pry information free from this administration.”
Cummings added: “This is the latest in a series of abuses by the Trump administration to operate in a shroud of secrecy, hiding their actions from federal ethics officials, the Government Accountability Office, the media, Congress, and the American people.”
However, relying on the OLC opinion, White House officials say they do not have to respond to any requests from individual lawmakers, or those that do not come through a committee.
“’Oversight’ is a constitutional power which Congress exercises through its established committees and their chairmen,” said Lindsay Walters, a White House spokeswoman. “This legal advice provides much needed clarity to the executive branch so that the administration can ensure resources are effectively dedicated to accommodating authorized congressional oversight requests and responding to nonoversight requests, independent of the political party of the requester.”
According to the OLC opinion, no minority lawmaker — including the ranking member of a full committee — may request information without the approval of committee or subcommittee chair.
“Individual members of Congress, including ranking minority members, do not have the authority to conduct oversight in the absence of a specific delegation by a full house, committee, or subcommittee,” OLC asserted. “Accordingly, the Executive Branch’s longstanding policy has been to engage in the established process for accommodating congressional requests for information only when those requests come from a committee, subcommittee, or chairman authorized to conduct oversight.”
OLC added: “Members who are not committee or subcommittee chairmen sometimes seek information about executive branch programs or activities, whether for legislation, constituent service, or other legitimate purposes (such as Senators’ role in providing advice and consent for presidential appointments) in the absence of delegated oversight authority. In those nonoversight contexts, the Executive Branch has historically exercised its discretion in determining whether and how to respond, following a general policy of providing only documents and information that are already public or would be available to the public through the Freedom of Information Act … Whether it is appropriate to respond to requests … from individual members will depend on the circumstances. In general, agencies have provided information only when doing so would not be overly burdensome and would not interfere with their ability to respond in a timely manner to duly authorized oversight requests.”
The OLC memo was drafted by Curtis Gannon, the acting assistant attorney general.