At a time when the president of the United States routinely accuses Democrats of conspiring with the news media to thwart the will of the people and overturn his stunning Electoral College landslide, it’s not terribly surprising to learn that the White House is instructing federal agencies to stonewall efforts by the minority party in Congress to exercise oversight. But it’s another sign of another layer of bipartisan tradition being stripped away. And given the timing, it makes you wonder if Team Trump wants to make sure congressional Republicans can keep dangerous information bottled up, with respect to the Russia probe and other sensitive matters.
Politico has the scoop:
The White House is telling federal agencies to blow off Democratic lawmakers’ oversight requests, as Republicans fear the information could be weaponized against President Donald Trump.
At meetings with top officials for various government departments this spring, Uttam Dhillon, a White House lawyer, told agencies not to cooperate with such requests from Democrats, according to Republican sources inside and outside the administration.
A White House spokeswoman said the policy of the administration is “to accommodate the requests of chairmen, regardless of their political party.” There are no Democratic chairmen, as Congress is controlled by Republicans.
Bit of a catch, eh?
Turns out, according to The Wall Street Journal, the Department of Justice has given the green light to this partisan interpretation of congressional oversight powers:
The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, a unit that answers legal questions for government agencies and the White House, said congressional authority to oversee the executive branch may be exercised only by committees and subcommittees controlled by the party in power.
“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,” according to the May 1 opinion, signed by the acting official in charge of the office, Curtis Gannon.
This was not, as The Wall Street Journal article notes, the “longstanding policy” of the executive branch before Donald Trump took office. While Republicans often complained that the Obama administration slow-walked its oversight requests before and after it completely took over Congress in 2015, there was no policy denying the minority party’s inquiries altogether.
Democrats have been sending White House and executive branch agencies letters on a near-daily basis on issues ranging from the Russia investigation and ethics issues to health care and environmental concerns.
Earlier this week, for example, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D., Md.), the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, asked the director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, for documents related to his conversations with President Donald Trump about the Russia investigation.
The “stonewall the minority” policy is being imposed at a convenient time for the administration, as The Wall Street Journal report observes. If congressional Republicans choose not to exercise full oversight of the administration’s more dubious activities — as seems to be the tendency of at least one key House Republican chairman, the Intelligence Committee’s Devin Nunes, who is clearly trying to redirect the Russia probe toward areas less perilous for the White House — then that avenue for holding the administration accountable may be closed off entirely.
And that does seem to be the idea. The Journal reports that 145 letters from House Democrats to the administration went unanswered in March and April alone. And Politico quotes Senate Democrats as claiming little or no response to 225 oversight inquiries since January.
Aside from this dispute over who said what to whom, there does not seem to be any doubt that Democrats are hearing crickets from agencies in response to requests for information related to their efforts to hold the administration accountable:
A senior Democratic aide said that of the Senate Democrats’ 225 oversight letters sent to the Trump administration since January asking for information, the vast majority have received no response.
No area of constitutional law is murkier than the separation of powers between the executive and the legislative branch. Normally, Congress can protect its oversight powers by firing off subpoenas, or even threatening to withhold appropriations. But that tends not to happen when the same party is in charge at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Thus the best and perhaps the only way Democrats can get around the administration’s stone wall is to win control of at least one congressional chamber in 2018. Then they will have some of those chairmanships that command the attentions of bureaucrats.