Blinding Oversight

Posted October 14, 2003 at 3:35pm

Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have long complained about the unresponsiveness of the Bush White House to their concerns and its tendency to withhold information. Now comes a new example: a proposed rule by the Office of Personnel Management to sharply limit the number, tenure and utility of executive branch officials detailed to Capitol Hill.

The obvious intent of the rule, published Sept. 9 in the Federal Register, is to inhibit Congress’ ability to oversee executive branch activities by depriving Members and committees of the services of civil servants who know how executive bureaucracies work. It’s a bald faced move to partially blind Congress as it conducts oversight.

Fortunately, a loud complaint about this latest act of executive contempt has been raised by a powerful Republican — Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), chairman of the Finance Committee. Portions of the rule “could be a threat to the Congress’s duty to conduct oversight” and “chill the benefits that detailees provide to Members of a different party than the administration at the time,” Grassley wrote OPM director Kay Cole James.

No one is quite sure exactly how many executive detailees work on the Hill, but they number in the hundreds. An OPM official told Roll Call that the rule came about because the White House wanted to know how many detailees there were. However, the rule goes far beyond mere personnel tracking. It’s designed to centralize the whole detailing process in the hands of the OPM director, allows that official to bar detailees from working on matters where legislative and executive interests differ and ends all current detail assignments on Jan. 2, 2004.

The text of James’ proposed regulation cloaks the administration’s aims in high-minded language. Its purpose is “to maintain the separation of powers under the constitution and prevent conflicts of interest among the branches and individuals involved.” The real purpose is to prevent “disclosure of information within the constitutional authority of the executive to withhold because disclosure could impair … the deliberative processes of the executive or the performance of the executive’s constitutional duties.”

In other words, the Bush administration does not want executive branch experts to help the legislative branch understand what it’s up to. A blind Congress is a good Congress.

James and OPM have cited no example of abuse or problem in a system that has been going on for years. “Like many things,” Grassley put it, “when it comes to detailees, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The proposed regulation is not final. The 60-day comment period on it ends Oct. 24, after which it can be rewritten. We’d urge Members to join Grassley in sounding off about James’ proposal to the point that it’s just withdrawn.