Even before the notice appeared in the Federal Register late last year, the staff of the National Institutes of Health's Privacy Office suspected that there might be trouble. An executive branch agency announcing that it would keep computerized records on members of Congress does about as much for mutual goodwill as a neighbor announcing that he has bought an attack dog.
In this case, NIH was proposing to computerize its existing system for briefing agency officials about the members of committees before which they were scheduled to testify. The computerized system was designed to replace a flurry of photocopying from the Congressional Directory and other sources that usually occurs on the eve of hearings.
"This is just an attempt to make more efficient something which I gather is fairly standard practice in the federal government," said Kenneth Thibodeau, the NIH's Privacy Act coordinator. "You don't go to the Hill to testify without doing some work beforehand, such as looking up bios in the Congressional Directory. At NIH, we supplement that with information on awards in a congressman's district."
With the proposed new system, he said, "we can tap the system instead of having to shuffle papers every time someone goes on the Hill . . . .
"Congress has a perfect right to say, 'If you're going to keep records on us, exactly what are you keeping and how would you use it?' " Thibodeau added. "We'll show them." He said the system would have electronic safeguards that would block unauthorized access, by people who want to retrieve information or those who want to add it.
"Highly inappropriate," huffed Rep. Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.) in a letter to Rep. William H. Natcher (D-Ky.), who heads the appropriations subcommittee that controls NIH's pursestrings.
Saying that the department intended to include "biographic sketches, legislative records on health issues, ratings of members of Congress by various public interest groups," among other things, Weiss urged Natcher "to consider including a provision in an upcoming appropriations bill that prohibits the department from undertaking this blatantly political activity."
"This is totally innocuous," protested Thibodeau. "All of the information involved would be in the public domain. We don't intend to do any sleuthing to discover any information about members of Congress."
In a statement issued through an aide, Weiss responded: "When HHS officials testify before Congress, they should be concerned with issues relevant to program policy and administration. The political ratings of members and the amount of research funds awarded to their districts have little to do with the merits of HHS testimony on programmatic concerns."