Ethics Watchdog Challenges Congressional Moves to Limit Government Transparency

“Congress is supposed to conduct oversight, not obstruct it.”

Washington, DC — Non-partisan ethics watchdog American Oversight today wrote a letter to the General Counsel of the House of Representatives, criticizing recent attempts by Congress to shield government records from release under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and asking the Counsel to explain why this does not violate the law.

According to news reports, several House committees have instructed executive branch agencies to withhold all correspondence with Congress when responding to FOIA.  To date, no legal justification has been provided.

“Congress is supposed to conduct oversight, not obstruct it,” said Austin Evers, Executive Director of American Oversight. “The Freedom of Information Act doesn’t allow federal agencies to hide their correspondence with Congress, and we’re prepared to go to court to defend the public’s right to know what our government is doing.”

On May 5, American Oversight filed a FOIA request with the Treasury Department for all correspondence with the House Financial Services Committee regarding financial regulatory reform. Today, the watchdog group is filing additional FOIA requests with other executive branch agencies that have received similar instructions from Congress, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Reserve, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the National Credit Union Administration, and the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

American Oversight has already has sued for the release of congressional communications regarding health care.

Congress exempted itself from FOIA, and courts have allowed executive branch agencies to withhold certain types of congressional records – such as committee transcripts or congressional reports – in certain circumstances when responding to FOIA requests. However, the statute does not contain a blanket exemption for congressional correspondence with the executive branch, and, historically, the public has been entitled to those records.

“Members of Congress might think they have a Midas-like power to magically hide every record they touch, but that’s not what the law says,” added Evers. “If Congress wants to amend the FOIA to hide all of Congress’s work from American citizens, they should pass a bill to do that, and then explain to the voters exactly why that makes sense.  Until that far-off day, the public has a right to this information and American Oversight will sue to get it.