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Trump Administration Moves To Limit Congressional Oversight Of Agencies


The Trump administration has found an issue that infuriates both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, a move that would limit Congress's ability to monitor the executive branch. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The Justice Department says the Constitution doesn't give individual members of Congress the power to do oversight, that is, to investigate how well executive branch agencies do their jobs. Under this new policy, when your local representative writes a letter asking questions about some problem, the agency most likely blows it off.

CHUCK GRASSLEY: Everything that every eighth-grade student has studied about checks and balances of government...

OVERBY: Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said the policy disregards the Constitution.

GRASSLEY: It eliminates the check of most members of Congress to see that the laws are faithfully executed by a president.

OVERBY: Grassley is chairman of the powerful judiciary committee. And he's also done plenty of oversight investigations on his own. He said the Trump administration should abandon the new policy. And if it won't...

GRASSLEY: If they don't want to eliminate it, then, you know, Congress can legislate in that area.

OVERBY: An administration spokesperson told NPR, the White House looks forward to reaching a mutual understanding with Grassley, but the legal opinion fully and accurately states the law. The policy can sound pretty innocuous. Timothy Horne, acting administrator of the federal General Services Administration, explained it to a House committee last month.


TIMOTHY HORNE: The administration has instituted a new policy that matters of oversight need to be requested by the committee chair.

OVERBY: Translation...

NICK SCHWELLENBACH: The Justice Department said they should treat individual members of Congress' requests for information as Freedom of Information Act requests like anyone in the public can send in. So this is a bit of a subtle change, but it's important.

OVERBY: That's Nick Schwellenbach. He's with the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight. But not all agency heads are taking as hard a line as the Justice Department. Here's Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly at another recent hearing.


JOHN KELLY: Regardless of who the letter comes from - and it doesn't have to just come from a ranking member or chairman - we'll respond to any congressional...

JON TESTER: Thank you.

KELLY: ...Inquiry.

OVERBY: Still, Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes said House Democrats have seen almost all of their letters get ignored by the Trump administration, a contrast to last year's campaign rhetoric.

JOHN SARBANES: They certainly put an emphasis, with this idea of draining the swamp, on accountability and transparency. But so far, they seem to have moved in the complete opposite direction.

OVERBY: It's possible the administration policy will run into the bipartisan institutional loyalties on Capitol Hill, as Rhode Island Democratic senator, Sheldon Whitehouse, pointed out.

SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: The idea that the legislative branch would willingly go along with this kind of an assault on its powers by the executive branch runs contrary to the interests of every senator.

OVERBY: Provided, of course, that the senators and representatives can agree to do something about it. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.