Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee aired their long-running frustrations at the Justice Department’s lack of response to their requests for information on Thursday and floated the possibility of using contempt of Congress or the appropriations process to demand more cooperation.
Chairman Richard J. Durbin said the panel plans to compile a list of pending requests to the Justice Department from both parties, which he predicted would be “lengthy,” and a list of next steps the committee could take. And then the committee members could discuss options privately and he could let the Biden administration know the committee is serious about getting the information, the Illinois Democrat said.
“If they are going to continue to ignore us or stonewall us, we will consider measures that can be taken by the committee on a bipartisan basis,” Durbin said.
Senators on the panel from both parties have complained about the lack of responsiveness to their information requests over the past two administrations and also criticized Justice Department leadership for not participating in oversight hearings this year.
The Biden administration declined to provide a witness for a hearing this week on efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba, and DOJ leadership was noticeably absent from a September hearing about the FBI’s mishandling of sexual assault allegations made against Larry Nassar, the former doctor for the women’s national gymnastics team.
Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn characterized it Thursday as “just giving the Heisman to the committee,” referring to the famous college football trophy depicting a player ready to give a stiff-arm to fend off a would-be tackler.
“I think the only reason that the Department of Justice doesn’t answer our letters, and the FBI, is because we let them get away with it,” Cornyn said. “I think there are tools potentially available to us to make that decision an uncomfortable one for them.”
Cornyn said that agencies depend on Congress for funding, a “rather blunt instrument, but available,” and that the House select committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has issued subpoenas and used contempt of Congress in its push for information.
“I think there are tools like that, and I’m not suggesting any specific one at this point,” Cornyn said. “I’m just saying that being ignored is not acceptable.”
Durbin did not immediately shoot down the ideas. And Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a panel member who is also chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, hinted that he might use the levers of power there on the issue.
“I would suggest that possibly those on the Appropriations Committee might have some inducements for some of these,” Leahy said.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, rattled off a long list of requests that hadn’t been filled. And Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse described the “phony baloney” excuses for not complying with requests and the delay tactics he has seen from the Justice Department.
“And the thing that’s most frustrating about all this, Mr. Chairman, is that when it suits the interest of the department, and when it suits interests of the president, none of this seems to be a problem,” Whitehouse said.
Durbin said he raised the issue in a meeting last week with the No. 2 official at the Justice Department, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, who told him the department would be more responsive. “But we’ve heard that before. We’ve heard it many times,” Durbin said.
Back at the confirmation hearing for Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in February, Durbin had asked whether Garland would provide timely answers to requests for information from Judiciary Committee members.
“Yes, Mr. Chairman. We will be as responsive as we possibly can,” Garland testified. “As I said, a great respect for and belief in the oversight role of this committee.”