House Democrats are calling on the Trump administration to immediately lift a ban that commands federal agencies to deny information to congressional committee members who make oversight requests.
In a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the White House counsel on Tuesday, the Democrats said they are “deeply concerned with the president’s decision to abandon his pretenses at transparency and to wage a campaign of increasing secrecy if not outright dishonesty.”
It is signed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and 20 ranking committee members. The administration issued a legal opinion in May asserting that only committee chairmen, all Republicans, have the authority to conduct investigations and request information for oversight of the executive branch.
The legal opinion arrived as at least five committees were in the process of investigating the president and members of his administration for links to Russia and possible obstruction of justice.
“The White House’s extremely disturbing and unprecedented gag order raises the question: What is President Trump trying to hide?” Pelosi said. “This indefensible, partisan decree leaves no doubt of the President’s contempt for transparency and his lack of respect for the vital oversight role that our Founders created for Congress.”
The White House declined to comment saying officials there had not yet seen the letter. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Democrats in both the House and Senate committee have complained of at least 100 instances where agencies have denied requests for information to prepare for hearings or declined to speak with staff members.
But party leaders in the House are zeroing in on the General Services Administration’s denial of requests related to the president’s business interests, such as the Trump hotel in Washington, and whether visiting foreign dignitaries are using it to bestow favors on the chief executive.
Withholding information from any congressman violates a statute passed by Congress and signed by the president in 1928. The Seven Member Rule gives any seven members of the Committee on Government Oversight and Government Reform the authority to require any agency to “submit any information requested of it relating to any matter within the jurisdiction of the committee.”
Earlier this month, nearly 200 congressional Democrats agreed to sue President Trump, saying that by holding interests in a global business empire he is violating constitutional restrictions on accepting gifts and assorted benefits from foreign leaders.
The leader of the complaint, Sen. Richard Blumenthal
(D-Conn.), said the lawsuit had drawn 196 plaintiffs, more than any legal action ever taken against a president. A legal expert doubted the lawsuit’s viability, saying it’s joined only by Democrats, not the full congressional body, and therefore carries less weight.
In a June 5 letter, Democrats on the Government Oversight and Reform Committee wrote the acting administrator of the GSA, Timothy Horne, asking him to respect the Seven Member Rule.
Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, four committee Democrats asked for documents relating to the Old Post Office lease, the site of the new Trump International Hotel. The request was declined to ranking Democratic members alone. But a GSA official, Saul Japson, acknowledged the rule.
Should the committee “or any seven members . . . submit a request . . . GSA will review such a request,” Japson said. But nothing happened when eight members returned with a request. “Over the past four months, our staffs have inquired repeatedly about the status of this request, but we have received no further response from the GSA.”
Democrats said they weren’t sure what they would do if the Justice Department and the White House ignored their request to lift the ban the same way as the GSA ignored the requests of the committee. But Government Oversight and Reform members said they have cause to take action.
“The Seven Member Rule is not a regulation or a guideline, but a statute,” members said. “Although you may wish to limit oversight by Democratic members of Congress . . . compliance with federal law is not an optional exercise that may be overridden by a new Trump administration policy.”