U.S. Congress
Credit: Daniel Huizinga/Flickr

Democrats in the House are protesting what they say is a new Trump administration policy aimed at blocking federal agencies from communicating with Democratic members of Congress.

In a letter released today, Reps. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA) allege that the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) now seems to require that every request for information from Congress have the sign-off of a committee or subcommittee chairman — i.e., a Republican — before the agency will respond. It’s a policy that Rice and Kilmer call an “alarming and overt politicization of the most basic aspects of government” that “could prevent Members of Congress from fulfilling our Constitutional responsibilities.”

According to the letter, addressed to OPM’s Acting Director, Kathleen McGettigan, a small group of members from the House New Democrat Coalition sent what they thought was a nonpartisan letter to the agency, asking for information about the agency’s requirements for recruiting and training cybersecurity personnel. “It wasn’t criticizing them about anything,” said a staffer for Rice.

On May 9, the Acting Director of OPM’s Congressional affairs team, Janel Fitzhugh, told Rice’s staff by phone that according to the agency’s new “policy,” instituted by OPM’s new chief of staff Jason Simmons, requests for information would get no response unless also signed by a committee chair. Rice’s staff could not obtain written confirmation of this new requirement but got a second phone call from the same senior staffer, doubling down on the agency’s insistence for sign-off from a committee or subcommittee chairman to every Congressional request.

“If this administration is categorically prohibiting basic communication with Democrats,” the letter reads, “then they are prioritizing politics and loyalty over common sense, and making it nearly impossible for members of Congress to do our jobs.”

The letter then goes on to demand that OPM confirm whether the requirement for Republican sign-off is in fact now agency policy and if there are other agencies acting similarly.

In the exercise of its oversight duties over the executive branch, Congress routinely sends both formal and informal requests to federal agencies, asking for information about agency programs and operations, including budget figures, technical data or details of policy or pending legislation.

Agencies might sometimes drag their feet on these requests. But the Trump administration’s response to a recent letter from a group of House Democrats might be unprecedented in its partisan stonewalling.

If what happened to Rice and Kilmer is indeed now OPM “policy,” it signals a blatant attempt by the Trump administration to thwart the most fundamental aspects of Congressional oversight. It’s also a naked display of partisanship — an effort to hobble the Democratic opposition by essentially giving Republicans veto power over access to information. And by requiring the signatories to be committee or subcommittee chairs, OPM is further narrowing who controls the flow of information to Congress about its activities.

Given the lack of transparency that’s characterized the Trump Administration to date, this behavior is now par for the course. Nevertheless, Reps. Rice and Kilmer deserve credit for calling out the administration on its efforts to disempower the Democratic minority in Congress.

The full letter is below:

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