Good News: Bipartisan Group in Congress Fights for Government Transparency

Even in this hyper-partisan age, sometimes a broad spectrum of Congress can find common ground defending the public’s interests. A bipartisan group of senators did just that this week by insisting that Inspectors General (IGs) — independent watchdogs against waste and corruption — should have unrestricted access to federal agency records.

If congressional leadership has any sense, it will put the bill at issue on a fast track to passage.

The Obama administration is not exactly fond of IGs or of governmental transparency. Its hostility reached a head on July 20 when, in clear defiance of at least two existing laws, the Justice Department issued an order requiring IGs to obtain “permission” for access to some records. Permission from whom? From the chiefs of the very agencies over which they watch! (In this case, the materials sought for the IGs own safekeeping included grand jury, wiretap, and fair credit information.)

The idea is ludicrous. It is akin to asking a cop not merely to obtain a search warrant before raiding a gangster’s headquarters, but also to convince the gangster himself to give permission for the search. It lets an agency head have the power to sidestep investigation into any malfeasance, including his own, that may have occurred under his purview.

The good news is, Congress seems to be rallying behind the beleaguered IGs. On Sept. 21, Democratic senators Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Tom Carper (Del.) and Barbara Mikulski (Md.) joined Republicans Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Ron Johnson (Wis.), John Cornyn (Texas), Susan Collins (Maine), James Lankford (Okla.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) to offer a substitute amendment to S. 579, the Inspector General Empowerment Act. The amendment would expressly override the Justice Department’s lawless and nonsensical ruling.

“The action we’re taking with this new legislation leaves no room for misinterpretation,” said Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, shakes hands Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates after she testified during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 8, 2015, entitled "Going Dark: Encryption, Technology, and the Balance Between Public Safety and Privacy." FBI Director James Comey and Quillian Yates, pressed concerns about encryption before Congress, arguing the right to privacy is not absolute and must be weighed against public safety interests. Tech companies still say they're steadfastly committed to protecting their customers' privacy. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Senate Judiciary chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has led the bipartisan push to empower the government’s IGs. | Photo: AP

It isn’t just this one group of senators that is backing the Inspectors General, and thus the public’s right to oversight of executive agencies. Senate leaders on two different committees joined House leaders on two committees in sending one letter, and House leaders on yet a third committee sent a second letter to the Justice Department disputing its strange attempt to withhold public documents. The letters featured Members of Congress not just from both parties, but from across the ideological and geographical spectrums from well-known liberal Rep. John Conyers of Michigan to conservative stalwart Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah.

In July, for example, the Democrat Mikulski and Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama wrote on behalf of an Appropriations Committee subcommittee that the Justice Department was plain “wrong” in its interpretation of a prior appropriations bill that dealt with IG access. “Throughout this ongoing dispute between the Department and the OIG about access to information, the Senate Committee on Appropriations has shown clear concerns about the frequency and abundance of material that the Department has chosen to withhold,” they wrote.

This is no mere theoretical dispute. If an IG is investigating whether the Justice Department has conducted grand jury proceedings according to law, the IG obviously needs access to grand jury records. In a nearly analogous situation, for example, a federal district judge excoriated Justice for “grotesque misconduct” in its investigation and trial of some New Orleans police officers, and the court of appeals affirmed that judgment.

This is why Justice is so wrong, and why the strong bipartisan response to Justice is so encouraging. Alas, right now, an unnamed senator has put a legislative “hold” on this bipartisan bill to remedy the problem. Senate leaders of both parties should do all in their power to convince the senator to drop the hold — or, barring that, to begin the sometimes-arduous parliamentary process required to overcome it.

The Department of Justice may not demand it, but the cause of justice certainly does.

Quin Hillyer is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. He is a 40-year veteran of conservative journalism and activism, now living in Mobile, Alabama. You can follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.