Management

Congressman claims agency communications blackout is illegal

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., is asserting President Donald Trump's recent communications lockdown at several federal agencies is not only unethical, but it's also illegal.

The ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform penned a Jan. 26 letter to White House Counsel Donald F. McGahn saying Trump's recent decision to restrict federal agency communications with members of Congress violated "a host of federal laws," including the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.

Not long after taking office on Jan. 20, Trump signed an executive order requiring all federal agencies to cease all pending regulations — including those in the Federal Register that had yet to take effect — until new agency leadership could be appointed to review them.

The move has precedent, as presidents dating back to Ronald Reagan and through Barack Obama have issued similar executive orders.

But the White House also called for a communications lockdown, which was first reported at the Environmental Protection Agency and later at the Department of Health and Human Services, prohibiting agency officials from talking to either the press or members of Congress about the regulations until they were reviewed.

Cummings cited a Jan. 20 memo from the Trump administration to HHS officials instructing them not communicate with members of Congress between Jan. 20 and Feb. 3 about any pending regulation or policy unless approved by agency leadership.

The 2012 whistleblower law forbids any executive branch policy that prohibits communications with Congress and requires that any non-disclosure policies, forms or agreements include the following statement:

These provisions are consistent with and do not supersede, conflict with, or otherwise alter the employee obligations, rights, or liabilities created by existing statute or Executive order relating to (1) classified information, (2) communications to Congress, (3) the reporting to an Inspector General of a violation of any law, rule, or regulation, or mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety, or (4) any other whistleblower protection. The definitions, requirements, obligations, rights, sanctions and liabilities created by controlling Executive orders and statutory provisions are incorporated into this agreement and are controlling.

The Trump administration memo does not appear to include the disclosure statement, which the Maryland congressman said means it runs afoul of not only the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, but multiple sections of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016 and another federal statute governing communication with Congress.

"This memo appears to violate all of these laws, and it creates the impression that the Trump Administration intends to muzzle whistleblowers," Cummings said in the letter, citing similar reports from the Departments of Interior, Transportation, Agriculture and others.

The letter calls on the White House to immediately rescind the communication orders and issue a statement clarifying federal employees’ right to communicate with Congress.

When asked about the letter by email, House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz’s, R-Utah, office offered no comment.

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