The House Subcommittee on Government Operations' Feb. 1 hearing was scheduled to focus on the fifth anniversary of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.
But as with everything in Washington these days, the focal point soon shifted to the Trump administration.
Democrats — itching for a fight in the wake of reports that White House officials had ordered federal agencies not to communicate with Congress — came out of the gate blasting the Trump administration for what it characterized as illegal gag orders.
Ranking subcommittee member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who had previously sent a letter to the White House last week calling for it to rescind the gag orders — which he said violated "a host of federal laws — blasted the administration again in the hearing.
"Now, my understanding is that the Trump Administration first tried to deny that this memo was sent to its employees," he said.
"Then they reportedly sent out some kind of clarifying statement. But my understanding is that even the clarifying statement still failed to include the mandatory statement we required in the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act."
Cummings then requested that chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., direct the subcommittee to obtain "all emails and other communications" pertaining to a Department of Health and Human Services memo that detailed the gag order’s drafting and circulation.
Meadows later acknowledged that the memo required further explanation from the White House and revealed that he; House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah; and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, had penned a letter asking that the administration clear up its stance on the communications memos.
"We are suggesting that the White House clarify any confusion that may exist regarding the various transition memos as they relate to the WEPA or the anti-gag provision, which Sen. Grassley authored," he said.
"These are issues that are extremely important to those of us who are committed to making government work more effectively through the oversight process. And we will ensure that whistleblower rights to communicate directly with Congress are not impeded."
Meadows’ statement seemed to slightly diffuse a hearing meant to review the 2012 whistleblower protection law and quickly became a showcase of an alleged violation of it by the White House.
Prior to Meadows’ statement, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., pressed the hearing’s panel — which included Department of Justice Deputy Inspector General and Whistleblower Ombudsman Robert Storch, Office of Special Counsel Deputy Special Counsel for Litigation and Legal Affairs Eric Bachman, Project on Government Oversight policy counsel Elizabeth Hempowicz and Government Accountability Project legal director Thomas Devine — on whether the President should ensure that his administration would do nothing to impede whistleblower protection.
"If the President wants whistleblowers to help him drain the swamp, he can’t feed them to the alligators," Devine said.
The White House memos were part of the administration's suspension of regulations until permanent agency leadership was in place.