GOP: White House should fess up to lobbyist meetings

Republicans were rankled by the agreements that the administration and Senate Democrats struck with several healthcare groups — particularly a deal with the pharmaceutical industry — to help ward off opposition to the healthcare bill. 

Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) has requested records specific to a May 2009 agreement in which a group of industries agreed to trim $2 trillion per year in healthcare spending. 

The administration has said Burgess’s requests are overly broad or that no relevant records exist. 

“Two trillion dollars and no one even jotted down a note on the back of an envelope?” Burgess said during the hearing.

The Obama administration agreed in the fall of 2009 to release White House visitor records on a monthly basis after Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sued for them under the Freedom of Information Act. Since then, more than a million records have been released to the public. 

The administration often touts its White House visitor-records policy because it is the first administration in history to release those records periodically. The policy does have some exceptions, though, such as exempting personal visits to the president, the vice president and their respective families as well as meetings that are deemed sensitive, typically dealing with national security. 

The policy has come under renewed scrutiny after a recent Center for Public Integrity report revealed gaps in the visitor records’ data.

In addition, other press reports have said that administration officials meet with lobbyists outside the White House in order not to disclose those meetings to the public later on.

Subcommittee Democrats accused the GOP of staging Tuesday’s hearing for political purposes.

“There is nothing wrong with someone going out for a cup of coffee,” said Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), ranking member of the subcommittee. “There is something wrong with someone going out to avoid disclosure.”

She suggested Republicans’  allegations are unproven and based on questionable sourcing, including news reports that granted anonymity to their sources. 

GOP members criticized the White House for failing to appear at the hearing, but full committee ranking member Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said the White House got only a few days’ notice and had a schedule conflict. 

Waxman said the hearing was “not about open government. It’s about politics.” 

He said the hearing was an attempt to “embarrass an administration” that wanted to make its case but simply had a scheduling conflict.

Witnesses were split on transparency in the Obama administration. 

Tom Fritton, the president of Judicial Watch, a conservative group, said the alleged Caribou meetings are a major problem.

“This ethics gamesmanship undermines the rule of law and makes one think that this administration has something to hide,” he said.

Anne Weismann, chief counsel for CREW, was positive about Obama’s transparency efforts. 

Weismann said her transparency concerns surround federal agencies rather than the White House.

“I think [Obama] has put some of the key components in place,” she said.

Kevin Bogardus contributed to this report.