The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee is asking President Donald Trump to rescind a relatively new policy from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which restricts executive branch agencies from responding to congressional inquires other than committee chairman.
In a six-page letter to the President, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) detailed his opposition to the opinion from Acting Assistant Attorney General Curtis Gannon.
“It erroneously rejects any notion that individual members of Congress who may not chair a relevant committee need to obtain information from the Executive Branch in order to carry out their constitutional duties,” he wrote. “It falsely asserts that only requests from committees or chairs are ‘constitutionally authorized’ and relegates requests from non-chairmen to the position of ‘non-oversight’ inquires — whatever that means. This is nonsense.”
Grassley said he was often frustrated by the responsiveness, or lack thereof, of the Obama administration. But he said this particular policy rejects the core function of all members of Congress, who have a constitutional right to conduct oversight on behalf of its constituents.
The U.S. Constitution does not mention a committee or committee chairmen at all, Grassley said. For the administration to misunderstand this fact shows a “shocking lack of professionalism and objectivity,” he added.
Embracing the OLC policy also means agencies are not only withholding information from committee ranking member but also every other member of Congress, Democrat and Republican, Grassley said.
“I know from experience that a partisan response to oversight only discourages bipartisanship, decreases transparency and diminishes the crucial role of the American people’s elected representatives. Oversight brings transparency, and transparency brings accountability. And the opposite is true. Shutting down oversight requests doesn’t drain the swamp, Mr. President. It floods the swamp.”
When asked about the White House policy, some cabinet secretaries assured Democratic lawmakers that they would respond to their requests.
Homeland Security Department Secretary John Kelly said he’s made it a priority to be more responsive to Congress and make DHS officials more available as congressional witnesses.
“We’re going to make that better,” he said when asked about DHS’ responses to Congress. “First of all, we’re leaning forward. Regardless of who the letter comes from — and it doesn’t have to just come from a ranking member or chairman — we’ll respond to any congressional inquiry.”
Kelly mentioned Grassley as one of several lawmakers that he’d met with before his nomination hearing who told him that DHS was one of the worst departments to communicate with.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said he would cooperate with Congress and wouldn’t withhold information.
“At HUD, we will treat all inquires equally,” he told the House Appropriations Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies subcommittee during a June 8 budget hearing.
Yet others took a different approach.
Russell Vought, the president’s nominee to be the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget stood by the Office of Legal Counsel’s opinion when asked about it at length during his nomination hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
“In terms of formal communications that are sent to the administration, I am merely reflecting the administration’s policy in regard to the OLC opinion,” Vought told Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), the ranking member of the Senate committee.
McCaskill said she’s had “a few problems” with receiving responses from agencies but hasn’t had nearly as many issues as some of her Democratic colleagues.
“We have a huge problem, if you can’t even say out loud — even though the secretary of homeland security has unequivocally said, ‘Absolutely, we’ll get you information,’ and does so on a regular on a regular basis — whether it’s right or wrong,”she said.
But Vought stood by the OLC opinion and said he looked forward to working with the Senate committee in an “open and transparent way.”
“The people who elected me did not send me here to take that answer lying down,” McCaskill said. “I will punch above my weight on this.”