Ever since DC’s Trump International Hotel opened its doors this time last year, members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (HOGR) have sought transparency from the General Services Administration (GSA) about the hotel’s operation and any financial ties to President Donald Trump. The GSA is the executive agency leasing the Old Post Office building to Trump Old Post Office, LLC.
On November 2, seventeen Democrats on the Committee filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to compel the GSA to release details about the hotel’s operation and revenue.
The lease has been questioned since President Trump took the oath of office because it includes a provision that precludes an elected official from “any share or part of [the] lease, or any benefit that may arise therefrom.”
Additionally, the President’s lease with GSA has raised certain ethical questions for the Democrats. Namely, whether the office of the presidency is being used for private gain, the extent to which the hotel is profiting off of money from foreign governments or officials, and the potential conflict of interest that exists due to the President’s direct oversight of the GSA. The Democrats feel that the investigation of these issues is within the Committee’s jurisdiction as its mission, in part, is to “…ensure the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of the federal government and all its agencies.”
The lawmakers are invoking the “Seven Member” Statute (5 U.S.C. § 2954) to back their claim for documentation. The statute requires an executive agency to produce documents when at least seven members of the Committee request information on an issue within the Committee’s jurisdiction.
In the past, GSA officials complied with the statute and with requests from HOGR members. On January 3 of this year, then-GSA Associate Administrator Lisa A. Austin promptly responded to a request submitted by Ranking Committee Member Elijah Cummings regarding the Trump Hotel’s lease and operation. The response specifically acknowledged the Agency’s compliance with the “Seven Member Rule.”
Later in January, when Committee Democrats made a similar request for more information on the hotel’s expenses and revenue, the GSA refused to comply but agreed to consider the lawmakers’ request if they made it pursuant to the “Seven Member” law. The Democrats responded accordingly and made such requests invoking the statute on February 8. Receiving no response, they sent a renewed request on June 5 and again on July 6. Finally, in July, Acting GSA Associate Administrator P. Brennan Hart III responded, refusing to comply despite the invocation of the statute.
So what changed? Why is the GSA now tight-lipped when, in the past, they were compliant with the Democrats’ similar requests under the statute? As it turns out, the Office of Legal Counsel released a memo on May 1 stating that: “Individual members of Congress, including ranking minority members, do not have authority to conduct oversight in the absence of a specific delegation by a full house committee, or subcommittee.” This is contrary to the “Seven Member” statue and specifically targets Minority lawmakers’ ability to apply checks and balances through the investigation of executive agencies.
This practice of executive branch agencies dragging their feet in producing documents to Congress happens all too frequently. Recently, Congressional Republicans fought to gain access to documents from the Department of Justice related to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Fast and Furious operation.
One of the essential roles of Congressional committees is to act as a check and balance to executive agency action through oversight, a backbone of our democracy. The executive branch must comply with Congressional investigations to ensure a transparent, accountable government.