Senator Grassley Claims the Trump Administration is Rejecting the DOJ’s Opinion on Responding to Congressional Records Requests

At the end of last week, Senator Chuck Grassley’s office published a press release that claimed the White House “has committed to voluntarily answer all congressional inquiries, not just those from committee chairmen.” The White House’s response has seemingly resolved the Judiciary Committee Chairman’s concern that the Administration had wedded itself to what Senator Grassley described as a “nonsense” legal opinion issued by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (“OLC”).

Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) previously reported on the OLC opinion, arguing that the Trump Administration may be charting a course into newer and less transparent waters. The opinion was technically correct in emphasizing that individual Members of Congress lacked constitutional authority to conduct formal, compulsory oversight.  But the OLC also provided a distorted view of the law by implying that federal agencies could ignore requests, or provide limited responses on a discretionary basis, simply because of a Member’s political affiliation or position in leadership.

In response to a rebuke from Senator Grassley, who requested that the White House rescind the OLC opinion, White House Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short clarified that the opinion did not, in fact, “set forth Administration policy,” but only “legal advice consistent with the research of the Congressional Research Service.” Mr. Short further indicated that “[t]he Administration’s policy is to respect the rights of all individual Members, regardless of party affiliation,” and to “use its best efforts to be as timely and responsive as possible . . . consistent with the need to prioritize requests from congressional Committees, with applicable resource constraints, and with any legitimate confidentiality or other institutional interest of the Executive Branch.”  Steven Engel, the Administration’s current nominee for head of OLC, has promised to revisit and clarify aspects of the OLC opinion.

Whether the White House’s response to Senator Grassley is a “commitment of cooperation” is yet to be seen. The Administration’s actual policy for responding to congressional inquiries is unclear, as CoA Institute’s ongoing efforts to investigate the General Services Administration demonstrate. Mr. Short’s letter and Mr. Engel’s confirmation hearing promises leave enough doubt as to the exact contours of the President’s transparency agenda.  The fact remains that Executive Branch officials have publicly acknowledged a “new policy,” which appears consistent with the OLC opinion.  Until more details about that policy emerge, it will be hard to evaluate whether, or to what extent, the White House has reversed course.

Ryan P. Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute