Two Republican lawmakers charged with conducting government oversight sharply rebuked Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price on Tuesday for curtailing his employees’ ability to communicate directly with Congress and suggested that the move violates federal law.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said the policy that Price’s chief of staff outlined in a memo last week “is potentially illegal and unconstitutional, and will likely chill protected disclosures of waste, fraud, and abuse.”
In the May 3 memo, chief of staff Lance Leggitt informed senior HHS staff members that “any communications with Members of Congress and staff should not occur without prior consultation with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Legislation.”
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Such communications include “requests for calls, meetings, briefings, technical assistance, policy development, hearings, oversight, detailees, etc.,” he said. “Your cooperation will help us avoid unnecessary problems in our relationships with Congress.”
Multiple federal departments have restricted their employees’ external communications to varying degrees since President Trump took office. In some cases, political appointees limited the use of social media or news releases. At the Interior Department, the director of the Office of Executive Secretariat and Regulatory Affairs instructed senior career officials in late January to clear all correspondence to or from the secretary with her office at least five days in advance of when the department would officially respond.
But Grassley and Chaffetz, who sent their letter to Price on Thursday and made it public five days later, took specific issue with the HHS policy. Its limitations, they argued, could deter whistleblowers from raising legitimate concerns from a separate branch of government.
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“The attached memorandum contains no exception whatsoever for lawful, protected communications with Congress,” the lawmakers wrote. “In its current form, employees are likely to interpret it as a prohibition, and will not necessarily understand their rights.”
They noted that “federal employees have a constitutional right to communicate directly with Congress and ‘petition the Government for a redress of grievances,’” a right that was clarified under a 1912 law to extend to “matters directly related to their employment.”
HHS spokeswoman Amanda Smith said in an email that the department “is responding to the Chairmen’s inquiry.” She said the memo does not specifically prohibit all communications with Capitol Hill and was aimed at notifying staff of the legislative liaison’s function.
“Transitions between administrations can mean significant staff turnover, which often leads to confusion and a breakdown of communications,” Smith said, noting that previous administrations have sent similar advisories.
In 1993, a memo from then-HHS Secretary Donna Shalala to the heads of HHS operating and staff divisions emphasized “that the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Legislation is responsible for the management of this Department’s relationships with the Congress” and that communication “on any legislation, appropriations requests, hearings, or policy development should not occur without prior consultation” with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Legislation.