GOP Lawmakers Blast HHS Restrictions on Contact with Congress

Members: Memo ‘potentially illegal and unconstitutional’

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, listens at a Senate Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing Monday, May 8, 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A pair of prominent Republican committee chairmen are criticizing an apparent effort by the Department of Health and Human Services to stifle communication between its employees and congressional staff.

A memo sent to HHS staff last week said any communication with Congress must go through the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Legislation. The chairmen of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee blasted the restrictions Tuesday.

The memo, from HHS Chief of Staff Lance Leggitt, said, “Any communications with Members of Congress and staff should not occur without prior consultation” with the legislative affairs office, including any phone calls, meetings, briefings or technical assistance.

“Your cooperation will help us avoid unnecessary problems in our relationships with Congress,” Leggitt’s memo said.

Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said the memo’s instructions were “potentially illegal and unconstitutional, and will likely chill protected disclosures of waste, fraud and abuse.”

“Federal employees have a constitutional right to communicate directly with Congress,” they wrote in a letter to HHS Secretary Tom Price, who was a congressman himself until February. The chairmen acknowledge that the memo doesn’t “ultimately prohibit” direct communication, but said “it forces employees to expose their communications with Congress to agency management, necessarily subjecting them to a significantly increased risk of reprisal.”

Chaffetz and Grassley requested that HHS send written guidance to agency employees clarifying that they have a right to communicate “directly and independently with Congress.”

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