Strengthening Checks and Balances

Congressional Letters to Agencies Going Unanswered

Over two months into President Trump’s administration, some Members of Congress are growing concerned about the administration’s failure to respond to letters requesting information or urging a specific action, a common tool Congress uses to conduct oversight. In March, Democratic Members of Congress catalogued 107 letters they had sent to the executive branch that have not been answered. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley (IA) has on multiple occasions sought to draw the White House’s attention to his unanswered letters through Twitter. On February 12, he ended a tweet with an all capital-letters demand: “WH: ANSWER MY LETTER.” An earlier Grassley tweet in January asked President Trump to order all agencies to respond to requests for records by any Senator.

Congress is often frustrated with the speed of agency responses regardless of administration. And agencies typically do not respond as rapidly to Members of Congress in the minority party, currently Democrats, who often lack subpoena power and other leverage to compel agencies to turn over documents.

Some argue the Trump administration simply doesn’t view government oversight as a priority. “These findings confirm what many feared: The Trump Administration has little regard for transparent government,” Representative John Sarbanes (D-MD) said in a statement.

During the Obama years, Congress also vocally complained about being slow-rolled, although then it was typically Republicans saying that it took months to get answers.

Exacerbating the problem, the Trump administration has not filled most of the senior Congressional affairs positions in agencies. The positions provide leadership and direction for how agencies prioritize and respond to Congress on issues ranging from minor constituent issues to high-profile scandals. Trump has nominated someone for only one of the 13 Senate-confirmed leadership positions, according to a ProPublica tally. But the staffing problems go well beyond just 13 leadership positions. For instance, ProPublica highlights how the Department of Labor’s website used to list almost two dozen political appointees staffing the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs. Now it lists none. President Trump told Fox News in February that “A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have.” While Trump was not specifically referring to these offices, it is likely that they will continue to go vacant, and Congress’s inquiries will continue to go unanswered.

Congressional oversight is critically important. As Senator Grassley recently tweeted to President Trump: “OVERSIGHT is same as CHECK AND BALANCES u studied in 8th grade civics in chapter on US Constitution (message for executive branch).”

The Project On Government Oversight urges the Trump administration to quickly fill vacant Congressional affairs positions, and to rise above his predecessor’s example by responding promptly to Congress’s letters.