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.”
White House and other administration officials did not return requests for comment on Tuesday ahead of the letter’s release.
“The fact that they just turn their back on oversight is part of a deeper syndrome, which is no respect for separation of powers, no respect for how the Constitution set up our government. It’s going to hurt the country, and it’s going to hurt them,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Tuesday.
Asked what his caucus could do to express their concerns beyond sending letters to the White House, Schumer said, “There are other things that we can do, and we’re exploring them. We have the floor of the Senate.”
That signals that Democrats could continue to slow to a crawl the confirmation of Trump administration nominees to federal agencies and courts. Republicans complained again this week that Democrats used every procedural tool at their disposal to drag out the confirmation of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) to be the next U.S. ambassador to China, a noncontroversial pick who was confirmed Monday night 82 to 13 — with 30 Democratic votes.
“It’s been disappointing to see so much pointless obstruction by our friends across the aisle,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) complained. “And they’ve done so not to change the result, but simply to eat up floor time that could be used for legislation to help our constituents.”
But Democrats would argue that they can’t properly represent their constituents if the Trump administration ignores them. Aides have compiled roughly 200 written requests from Democratic senators that have gone unanswered since Trump took office in late January, including questions about the official role of White House adviser Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, to inquiries at the Federal Railroad Administration.
Many of the requests are focused on the Russia probe — including inquiries to the Justice Department about why Attorney General Jeff Sessions is involved in hiring the new FBI director despite removing himself from any involvement in the issue. White House Counsel Donald McGahn has received several written requests from Democrats about White House staffers using private email accounts for official work or whether Trump is taking steps to minimize potential conflicts of interest with his family business.
Other inquiries are more substantive or focused on home state concerns. There’s a January request from Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) asking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for information about the health effects of trichloroethylene contamination of drinking water in Rockford, Ill. A February letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from 11 Democrats asks that he maintain the State Department’s dissent channel for rank-and-file employees to express their views. Another letter sent in March by 12 Democrats asks that the Environmental Protection Agency preserve automobile fuel economy emissions standards.
In the House, Democrats have made hundreds of similar requests, with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus especially angered at a slow pace of response from the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement regarding the detention of undocumented immigrants.
Democratic senators said they’ve been willing to give some leeway to a new administration as it launched its work earlier this year — but now say that the persistent lack of response suggests sinister motives.
“This just seems to be across-the-board, systemic rewriting of the separation of powers,” Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said on Tuesday.
“Everybody understands that in the first days of a new administration you’re kind of finding your feet and may take a little bit of extra time, and people like me will acknowledge that. That’s not what’s going on,” Wyden added. “This really feels like a pattern of just saying, ‘We don’t believe in getting back to Congress as they try to carry out their oversight responsibilities.’”
Wyden was part of roughly 30 different requests for information ranging from inquiries about Trump potentially receiving financial benefits from the Chinese government and a February letter to Tillerson about what the United States planned to do about an uptick of Russia-backed violence in Ukraine.
“I want to know, has there been a blanket policy of telling any agency not to be responsive? Because we’re not getting off to a good start,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (N.M.), the ranking Democrat on the Joint Economic Committee, who is also a member of the Armed Services and Intelligence panels.
Heinrich said he’s made several inquiries on intelligence matters that he can’t discuss publicly and others about how the administration is handling classified information.
Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, has spent 34 years in Congress combating GOP administrations on environmental policy. During George W. Bush’s administration — the last time Democrats controlled the Senate when Republicans held the White House — Carper said that the EPA was slow at times to respond to some policy questions, but that the Trump administration is far worse.
“I think if [President Obama’s EPA administrator] Gina McCarthy had been so inept in responding to the inquiries of our Republican colleagues, they would have shut down the Senate,” Carper said.
Beyond the letter, some Democrats are protesting the administration’s lack of response with votes. On Tuesday, several Democrats voted in committee against Trump’s nominee to lead the Treasury Department’s terrorism and financial crimes division to protest the administration’s refusal to produce records related to their probe of the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russian officials.
Top Senate Banking Committee Democrat Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and top Senate Intelligence Committee Democrat Mark R. Warner (Va.) complained during a committee confirmation vote for Sigal Mandelker that the administration is being too lackadaisical about producing documents that lawmakers have requested to supplement their probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. They were joined by other Banking Committee Democrats, who said they hoped that the Treasury Department would furnish the requested documents before the full Senate took up the nomination.