GOP chairman tells agencies to exclude info from FOIA requests

GOP chairman tells agencies to exclude info from FOIA requests
© Greg Nash

A House GOP chairman has instructed a dozen government agencies not to turn over communications with his panel as part of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, The Associated Press reported Friday.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb HensarlingThomas (Jeb) Jeb HensarlingKavanaugh hires attorney amid sexual assault allegations: report Did Congress just settle for less than best plan to reform housing finance? The White House can — and should — bypass Congress to kill Obama-era spending MORE (R-Texas) argued in one letter to Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinTrump announces tariffs on 0B in Chinese goods Trump: China tariff announcement to come Monday afternoon Trump could hit China with tariffs of 0 billion as soon as Monday MORE last month that the communications did not fall under "agency records."

"All such documents and communications constitute congressional records not 'agency records' for purposes of the Freedom of Information Act, and remain subject to congressional control even when in the physical possession of the Agency," he wrote.

The letter to Mnuchin was first reported by BuzzFeed News. The AP obtained additional letters to agencies under Hensarling's jurisdiction: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

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FOIA requests allow journalists, government watchdogs and others to petition executive branch agencies for documents, communications and other information. Congress is exempt from the law's disclosure requirements.

But in his letters, Hensarling argued that his committee's communications with the agencies could contain "sensitive and confidential" information and should remain in Congress' control, thus excluding them the open records law.

The top Democrat on the Financial Services Committee, Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersKavanaugh hires attorney amid sexual assault allegations: report Scalise: Democrats need to denounce political violence Women wield sizable power in ‘Me Too’ midterms MORE (Calif.), told the AP that Hensarling has long made "intrusive and aggressive demands of agencies."

"Anytime he's called on it, he says that Congress has the right to conduct oversight," she said. "And while Congress does have that right, it is the height of hypocrisy for him to take such extraordinary measures to shield himself from the oversight of the American public."

A spokesman for the Financial Services Committee said that the courts have long recognized that Congress' oversight role may be threatened should agencies not keep congressional records confidential.

"Congresswoman Waters has known about these letters for more than a month and she never raised any objections or said anything about them until a reporter asked," committee spokesman Jeff Emerson said in a statement.
 
"Here’s the truth: The position taken by the Committee is fully consistent with the legal position Republicans and Democrats have jointly taken for over three decades to protect Congressional records."
 
He added that Democrats have, in the past, taken the same kind of action and called Waters' comments "performance art."
 
"This newfound liberal outrage is just performance art," he said.
 
Updated on May 6, 2017 at 11:07 a.m.