Senate Democrats are threatening to pump the brakes on the White House's nominees for various government posts as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt continues to ignore requests for information.
Pruitt's inaction is in line with a May 1 memo from the Department of Justice, which reminded cabinet officials that they are under no obligation to respond to requests for information from individual members of Congress, including ranking minority members. The directive came from Curtis Gannon, who serves as the Acting Assistant Attorney General of the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel.
"They may request information from the executive branch, which may respond at its discretion, but such requests do not trigger any obligation to accommodate congressional needs and are not legally enforceable through a subpoena or contempt proceedings," Gannon wrote. The constitutional authority to conduct official inquiries of, or investigations into, executive branch programs and activities can be exercised only by each house of Congress or by the appropriate committees and subcommittees and their chairmen, Gannon advised.
The memo was criticized June 7 by Senate Democrats at a hearing for nominees to the Federal Energy Management Agency and Office of Management and Budget. Lamenting the recent lack of bipartisan efforts, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said he has never seen an administration be so unresponsive to an opposing party.
"If we had a Democratic administration and Republicans were trying to get information and do oversight over this Democratic administration, and got the kind of responses that we've been getting — non-responses — you guys would shut the place down," said Carper, who is ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works, or EPW, Committee. "We probably ought to do that as well."
Democrats later released a list of 102 requests to Trump administration officials that have gone unfulfilled since January 25. Of those requests, 15 related to EPA activities, including 14 that were addressed to Pruitt directly.
Carper met with Susan Bodine, who has been nominated by the White House to serve as assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, and subsequently issued a statement singled out the EPA for its unresponsiveness. Noting that Bodine has served as counsel to two chairmen of the EPW committee, which oversees EPA nominees, Carper said both those individuals "have taken their oversight roles very seriously."
"I do not believe her Senate bosses would stand for such blatant disregard from an agency, and Democratic members will not either," Carper said. The senator therefore said he has no choice but to oppose the consideration of additional EPA nominees until he receives adequate responses from Pruitt. He also offered to work with EPW Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming to resolve the issue.
A hearing to consider Bodine's nomination has been rescheduled to June 13, when the committee also will consider those of Kristine Svinicki, Annie Caputo and David Wright to serve with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Pruitt, who was confirmed in February, was the last EPA nominee to be considered by the EPW committee, as the Trump administration since has focused on filling vacant positions at other agencies. The EPA administrator has acknowledged staffing challenges as the White House has been slow to fill positions across the federal government.