Senate Ranking Members Urge DOJ to Restore Information Access for Minority Committee Leaders

September 24, 2021

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, led Senate committee ranking members in a letter to U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Attorney General Merrick Garland imploring the DOJ to rescind the Office of Legal Counsel’s (OLC) 2017 opinion, which advises departments and agencies that they can ignore document requests from minority leadership of congressional committees.

“The opinion creates insurmountable challenges for ranking members in conducting effective oversight. To restore the balance of information access between majority and minority leadership on committees, and as proponents of fair, transparent government, we implore the Justice Department to take action,” the ranking members wrote.

Members who joined Wicker in the letter include: Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee; Tim Scott, R-S.C., ranking member of the Special Committee on Aging; John Boozman, R-Ark., ranking member of the Agriculture Committee; Richard Shelby, R-Ala., vice-chair of the Appropriations Committee; James Inhofe, R-Okla., ranking member of the Armed Services Committee; Pat Toomey, R-Pa., ranking member of the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., ranking member of the Budget Committee; John Barrasso, R-Wyo., ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee; Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee; Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, ranking member of the Finance Committee; James Risch, R-Idaho, ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee; Richard Burr, R-N.C., ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee; Rob Portman, R-Ohio, ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, ranking member of the Indian Affairs Committee; Marco Rubio, R-Fla., vice-chair of the Intelligence Committee; Roy Blunt, R-Mo., ranking member of the Rules Committee; Rand Paul, R-Ky., ranking member of the Small Business Committee; and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., ranking member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Excerpt from the letter:

The OLC released an opinion on May 1, 2017 about the authority of individual Members of Congress to engage in oversight of the Executive Branch. It concluded that “[i]ndividual members of Congress, including ranking minority members, do not have the authority to conduct oversight in the absence of a specific delegation by a full house, committee, or subcommittee.” Not only does this opinion misinterpret the constitutional responsibilities of Congress for monitoring the activities of the Executive Branch but it fails to provide clarity on whether those same limitations apply to information requests made to Offices of Inspectors General (OIG).

The OLC opinion, which advises departments and agencies that they can ignore requests from Ranking Members, is based on grounds unsupported by the Constitution. Instead of respecting the separation of powers, the opinion ignores that our system of government vests Congress with all legislative responsibilities. Recognizing the importance of broad congressional access to information about activities in the Executive Branch, the Supreme Court acknowledged that “the power of inquiry is an essential and appropriate auxiliary to the legislative function.” Unfortunately, the opinion authored by then-Acting Assistant Attorney General Curtis E. Cannon inhibits Congress from fulfilling its duty of overseeing the programs it legislates into law, specifically by treating Ranking Members of congressional committees no differently than private citizens.

Click here to read the full letter.