Oversight committee critical of agencies’ effort to fill document requests

How many people with visas have overstayed their time in the United States? What information was included in more than 10,000 files related to the Office of Personnel Management data breach? Is there a paper trail leading to the decision not to pursue criminal charges against IRS officials for targeting conservative groups?

Those are questions members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform have been asking — in some cases — for more than a year, but a lack of documentation from federal agencies have prevented complete answers from being given.

“We expect communication. We expect to be kept informed and [for you] to be straight with us. And we expect that you’ll work with us in a good faith, which basically means when you make a commitment, do what you say you’re going to do,” said committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), during a Jan. 7 status update on documentation production. “To my fellow members, here’s a flashing signal that maybe there’s a problem. When they want to talk about the number of documents they produced, I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the percentage of documents that you produced. It’s a little trick to say, ‘Oh, we’ve provided a 100,000 of this or 50,000 of that.’ Tell me what percentage of the documents we get. Because if we want 100 percent of the truth, we’re going to need 100 percent of the documents. And until we get them, it makes us think that you’re hiding something.”

It’s not a case of hiding something, representatives from the Justice, Homeland Security and State departments, as well as OPM and Office of Management and Budget said, but a need to balance limited resources and privacy rights.

“The obstacle to responding is not one of commitment,” said Julia Frifield, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Legislative Affairs at State. “Fundamentally, it is a question of balancing resources in response to multiple large-scale congressional requests from a number of different committees.”

“I emphasize … that the department recognizes that congressional oversight is an important part of our system of government,” said Peter Kadzik, assistant attorney general for legislative affairs at Justice. “At the same time, congressional oversight that implicates ongoing law enforcement efforts and investigative techniques, sensitive attorney work product, and internal deliberations presents unique confidentiality challenges and concerns.”

The  three-hour hearing was often strained, as committee members grilled the witnesses on everything from unanswered letters to redacted documents to missed deadlines.

By the end of the hearing, committee members had given the agency officials an updated list of document requests as well as questions to consider for future document requests.

“Are we putting too much on our departments trying to get information for so many committees and subcommittees?” asked Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.). “Is that an onerous burden that you’re not staffed or configured to respond to in a timely manner and in a way that meets our needs and our requests? Are you trying to not give us the information that we want in a manner that is usable? If it is the former, then we need to address that and you need to be communicating clearly with us about the impact of the request and how we can better work together. If it is the latter, then you’re just going to be dragged into this committee and subcommittees until the end of time. Because it is disrespectful not to address Congress’ right to have information. We need to figure out exactly which one of these things it is.”

Balancing ‘significant demands’ with a need to know

The hearing came on the heels of a State Department inspector general report that found the agency “has not played a meaningful role in overseeing or reviewing the quality of [Freedom of Information Act] responses.”

“We are now responding to dozens of investigations by nine different committees, involving hundreds of specific requests for hundreds of thousands of pages of documents,” Frifield said. “This is approximately twice as many as we had in 2014. While some of these investigations are relatively focused, others are broad and complex, involving many different bureaus within the department, as well as other agencies.”

Jason Levin, director of the Office of Congressional, Legislative, and Intergovernmental Affairs at OPM, said that since June 2015 his agency has provided Congress with tens of thousands of documents and internal reports in response to six documentation requests.

Tia Johnson, assistant secretary for DHS’ Office of Legislative Affairs, said DHS received roughly 700 oversight letters and additional oversight requests in calendar 2015, requiring about 100,000 hours of work to respond.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said that he acknowledged the “significant demands” placed on the agencies to deliver information, as well as the ways in which a document request can turn partisan — and how to avoid it.

“We can end the politically motivated requests designed to generate headlines rather than improve effectiveness and efficiency,” Cummings said. “We can eliminate duplicate requests from multiple committees and streamline our oversight efforts. We can ask for only what we really need rather than everything under the sun.  And we can work with agencies to understand their legitimate interests in protecting certain classes of information while pursuing accommodations that give us what we need to do our jobs.”

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