Periodically, you see headlines like this in the media:
This all gives the illusion that the Democrats are kicking ass and taking names but that’s all it is, an illusion. While they are making a big production of demanding stuff, they really aren’t getting much of anything. Last week, the Democrats in Congress accused the administration of ignoring them:
Senate Democrats are accusing the White House of purposely ignoring requests for information on issues ranging from the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in U.S. elections, to ethics waivers given to top officials and changes in environmental rules.
At issue are the routine requests that members of Congress make to federal agencies in pursuit of information about policy changes or the individual concerns of constituents. Each federal agency is staffed with personnel responsible for fielding inquiries and following up with lawmakers.
But Democratic senators are accusing the administration of instructing federal agencies to “refuse requests for information from Democratic members of Congress,” according to a letter being sent to the White House on Wednesday and obtained by The Washington Post. Such a move “would be a significant departure from the practices of past Administrations and seriously inhibit Congress’s ability to fulfill its legislative and oversight duties.”
The letter asks President Trump to instruct agencies not to ignore Democratic requests for information and ensure that they’ll be answered “in a timely and consequential matter.”
Today the White House responded by releasing a legal opinion which spelled out to all executive branch entities their responsibility to respond, or not, to members of Congress:
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.
It appears to be a formalization of a practice that had already taken hold, as Democrats have complained that their oversight letters requesting information from agencies have gone unanswered since January, and the Trump administration has not yet explained the rationale.
The declaration amounts to a new level of partisanship in Washington, where the president and his administration already feels besieged by media reports and attacks from Democrats. The idea, Republicans said, is to choke off the Democratic congressional minorities from gaining new information that could be used to attack the president.
“You have Republicans leading the House, the Senate and the White House,” a White House official said. “I don’t think you’d have the Democrats responding to every minority member request if they were in the same position.”
Essentially what the letter says is that if a member of Congress who is not a chairman of a committee or subcommittee asks for any information about agency operations, they are to be treated with the same deference you would give to a random member of the public.
…Members not on a committee of jurisdiction, or minority Members of a jurisdictional committee, may, like any person, request agency records. When they do, however, they are not acting pursuant to Congress’s constitutional authority to conduct oversight and investigations.”). It does not trigger any obligation to accommodate congressional needs and is not legally enforceable through a subpoena or contempt proceedings.
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 non-oversight 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, 5 U.S.C. § 552. 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. In many instances, such discretionary responses furnish the agency with an opportunity to correct misperceptions or inaccurate factual statements that are the basis for a request.
So in the future when you read that Elijah Cummings is demanding information about something, keep in mind that if you send the same demand in you will probably get your answer first.