House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member
Elijah Cummings speaks with other Democrats at a Jan. 9 news conference
to call for an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate Russian
interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Updated at 5:52 p.m. ET
Democrats on the
House Oversight Committee want to see White House records on the
president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, his security clearance and his
access to classified information.
In a letter to White House
chief of staff Reince Priebus, the oversight panel's 18 Democrats
question why Kushner's security clearance hasn't been revoked.
Democrats say Kushner, one of President Trump's closest advisers, had
meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and the CEO of a Russian
state-owned bank. They say he failed to disclose the meetings as he
applied for security clearance and allowed administration officials to
say he'd had no such meetings.
"It is unclear why Mr. Kushner
continues to have access to classified information while these
allegations are being investigated," says the letter, which seeks
similar records on former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn
was asked to resign in February after misleading Vice President Pence
about his contacts and conversations with Kislyak during the transition
This and other investigative efforts put the Oversight
Committee Democrats, led by ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., at
the center of a brewing battle over congressional oversight.
The Trump administration has ignored hundreds of congressional letters of inquiry.
is also brandishing a legal opinion, crafted by the Justice Department,
holding that most of Congress lacks the constitutional power to conduct
oversight of the executive branch.
It isn't just an attack on Democrats, currently the minority party in both chambers on Capitol Hill.
"This is nonsense," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote to Trump
earlier this month. Grassley is a champion of strong oversight and has
been known to do investigations of executive branch agencies using just
his personal staff.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., this week dispatched a letter
to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House counsel Don McGahn,
accusing the administration of waging "a campaign of increasing secrecy
if not dishonesty." The letter was also signed by 25 other House
The Justice Department's legal opinion takes a
dismissive view toward individual members of Congress. It says the
Constitution limits oversight powers — the authority to ask executive
branch agencies for information on what they're doing — to committee
chairs. That freezes out even most Republicans, the overwhelming
majority of whom don't chair committees — and every Democrat on Capitol
Under this policy, when your local representative writes a
letter asking questions about some problem, the agency most likely
blows it off.
House Democrats now keep lists of their letters
ignored by the administration. The total so far: 260, on issues ranging
from infrastructure priorities to possible records of Russian financial
ties to President Trump and his family.
In an interview with
NPR, Grassley said the administration policy runs counter to "everything
that every eighth-grade student has studied about checks and balances
of government." Citing language from the presidential oath of office, he
said the policy "eliminates the check of most members of Congress to
see that the laws are faithfully executed by a president."
administration spokesman told NPR the White House is reviewing
Grassley's letter and looks forward to "a mutual understanding." The
statement concluded, however, that the Justice Department document
"accurately states the law and the legal obligations" for dealing with
Grassley told NPR that if the Trump White House doesn't act to roll back the policy, Congress can kill it through legislation.
policy can sound innocuous. "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," said Nick Schwellenbach, director of investigations for the
nonprofit Project on Government Oversight. "So this is a bit of a subtle
change, but it's important."
Not all agency heads are taking
as hard a line as the Justice Department. Homeland Security Secretary
John Kelly told a Senate hearing this month that his department would
respond to all congressional inquiries, "regardless of who the letter
comes from, and it doesn't have to just come from a ranking member or
Then there's the "seven-member rule," which requires
executive branch agencies to deliver any information requested by at
least seven members of the House Oversight Committee. The rule dates
from 1928 and isn't well-known, but it was most recently invoked just
five months ago.
Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., contrasts the
administration's position with Trump's "drain the swamp" rhetoric last
fall. He told NPR, "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."
Trump administration may also stumble over the bipartisan institutional
loyalties that run deep on Capitol Hill, especially in the Senate.
Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said in an interview, "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