GOP chair warns agencies about requests for records

2017-05-07 09:54
House Financial Services Committee chair Jeb Hensarling. (Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP File)

House Financial Services Committee chair Jeb Hensarling. (Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP File)

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Washington - A House Republican chair has told a dozen government agencies to exclude communications with his committee from requests made by news organisations, advocacy groups and others through the Freedom of Information Act.

In a series of letters, Jeb Hensarling of Texas said communications the agencies had with members of his panel and committee staff should not be released, arguing that it often includes sensitive and confidential information.

"All such documents and communications constitute congressional records not 'agency records' for purposes of the Freedom of Information Act, and remain subject to congressional control even when in the physical possession of the" agency, Hensarling wrote in one April 3 letter to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

Records and material from the executive branch are subject to requests under the 1967 Freedom of Information Act. Congress, which wrote the law, has exempted itself.

Hensarling's letter to the Treasury Department was first reported by BuzzFeed. The Associated Press obtained additional letters that the Republican lawmaker sent to other agencies within the jurisdiction of his Financial Services Committee. Among the agencies were the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

The committee's top Democrat, Maxine Waters of California, said Hensarling for years has made what she described as "intrusive and aggressive demands of agencies", citing his request of more than 150 000 pages of documents from the Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

"Anytime he's called on it, he says that Congress has the right to conduct oversight. And while Congress does have that right, it is the height of hypocrisy for him to take such extraordinary measures to shield himself from the oversight of the American public," Waters said. "People should ask themselves: What is he trying to hide?"

Legal ramifications 

The advocacy group Public Citizen said Hensarling's letter violates the spirit of the open records law though the legal ramifications are murkier.

"What's clear is that it's an outrageous move," said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen.

The Financial Services Committee has jurisdiction over issues relating to banking, insurance, federal monetary policy, housing and international finance. On Thursday, it passed legislation rolling back much of the Dodd-Frank laws created under President Barack Obama in response to the 2008 financial crisis.

Weissman said that the committee's taking on such legislation is one reason to be hypersensitive to secrecy.

"We know these are not technocratic policy matters removed from broad public interest or the influence of the most powerful industry sector in America," Weissman said.

Jeff Emerson, a spokesman for the committee, said the letter was simply a reminder of legal obligations. He said a federal appellate court recognised in 2004 that records created by the Treasury Department at the request of Congress are not considered agency records if Congress intended to retain them.

He said the court has long recognised that Congress' constitutional oversight role may be threatened if agencies don't maintain the confidentiality of congressional records.

"This newfound liberal outrage is just performance art," Emerson said in a statement, adding that Waters had known about the letters for more than a month and failed to object publicly.

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