Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao said Thursday that it’s up to the White House to decide whether congressional Democrats get a response to routine transportation inquiries they make to her department.
Her comment came as she was questioned at a House hearing more than a month after the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel ruled that individual members of Congress “do not have the authority to conduct oversight in the absence of a specific delegation by a full house, committee or subcommittee.”
Fearful that Democrats might use information from federal agencies against the president, White House lawyer Uttam Dhillon advised agencies not to cooperate with Democrats, Politico reported this week.
That led Senate Democrats to write the White House in protest, and, in turn, set up an exchange Thursday when Chao came before the House Transportation Committee.
In matters of transportation, it’s not uncommon for lawmakers of both parties to ask DOT about such things as airport noise and progress on road or transit projects.
“The administration will only reply to inquiries from Republicans and not from Democrats,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), “will you assure us that the transportation department … will respond timely and substantively to oversight inquiries from the members of this committee?”
“I always want to work across the aisle,” Chao responded, pointing out that past administrations always had done so. “That’s always been my history.”
Nadler pressed Chao on the current White House policy.
“I will do everything I can, but it’s up to the White House on what they want to do,” Chao said. “It’s up to the White House and this administration. I’m not in charge of that.”
Nadler asked if Chao ever had been told to ignore Democratic requests.
“I have not, personally, no,” she said.
“Has your department?” Nadler said.
“I will find out for you,” Chao said.
Nadler continued, “Because obviously, such instruction, whatever the legal basis, would be obnoxious in the extreme and a violation of all the traditions of this country [dating] from 1789.”
It was Chao’s second appearance on Capitol Hill in as many days as she sought to answer congressional questions about an administration plan that would spin more than 30,000 Federal Aviation Demonstration employees off the federal payroll and into a private nonprofit corporation that would oversee aircraft in flight and takeover modernization of the aviation system.
The proposal virtually mirrors one approved by the House Transportation Committee last year, only to falter on the House floor and get a cold shoulder from the Senate. Chao addressed the same concerns raised by the Senate commerce committee Wednesday.
She vigorously refuted critics who say the plan would allow airlines to take over the aviation system, reassured rural state lawmakers that airports in smaller cities would not be neglected, and that the a federal program that guarantees airline service to small airports would be sustained.
A counter proposal presented Wednesday by House Democrats got little mention in the hearing after an opening presentation by Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.). The Democratic plan would reform the FAA and create a trust fund that would provide the agency with a steady stream of funding, one exempted from government shutdowns, sequestration or other congressional meddling.
“Our bill fixes every problem identified by aviation stakeholders and does not engage in the ‘science experiment’ of air traffic controller privatization,” Larsen said. “We cannot deny the progress the FAA has made [with modernization projects. A privatization plan will not come with a magic wand that will accelerate these efforts.”