Obama Regulatory Chief Pressed to Comply with House Subpoena

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said Obama's regulatory chief is failing in his duty. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said Obama's regulatory chief is failing in his duty. J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

A House hearing billed as an exploration of the accountability and transparency at the White House regulatory office on Tuesday turned into a stern inquisition of the head of that office on whether he was complying with a congressional subpoena.

Howard Shelanski, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, ran into a buzz saw of criticism from lawmakers of both parties on a subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, whose full chairman threatened to hold him in contempt.

The routine witnesses included a professor and an industry representative concerned about OIRA’s overreach or politicization of current issues such as the Obama administration’s coming rules from the Environmental Protection Agency’s work on the Clean Water Act. A Government Accountability Office specialist raised questions about OIRA’s decision not to implement 16 of the 25 recommendations auditors made over the 13 years.

But Shelanski, after providing the committee an overview of his office’s mission and progress in being transparent with industry and reviewing regulations with an eye toward saving money, angered lawmakers with his description of how the Office of Management and Budget works with congressional overseers.

“We want names and documents,” said full panel Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, citing his July 2015 subpoena and two letters seeking OIRA’s internal correspondence on controversial rulemakings. “You are failing in your duty,” he said. “This is the runaround we get. I don’t understand why I shouldn’t hold you personally in contempt of Congress.”

Shelanski said his office was in the middle of “ongoing, robust” talks with committee staff and had already turned over 4,000 pages. “We will endeavor to get you all you need,” he said. But he set the lawmakers off when he added that he had personally turned over all his papers to OMB’s general counsel and Office of Legislative Affairs. “There’s a misunderstanding,” he said. “I don’t have personal involvement” with these offices. “They are not my staff,” they work for all of OMB.

“But your name is on the subpoena, not the general counsel’s,” said Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C. “What it smells like here is that you’re not being truthful with this committee.” Meadows also blasted Shelanski’s notion of “robust, ongoing” discussions, saying, “We have ongoing efforts to balance the budget, but that doesn’t mean it’s getting done.”

Shelanski objected to the lawmakers’ characterizations that he hadn’t turned over documents, and he bristled when Chaffetz demanded that he say, under oath and for the record, the name of the OMB general counsel Llona Cohen.

Ranking member Gerry Connolly, D-Va., was equally tough on Shelanski. “It’s untenable to say that because I’m head of an agency, I have outsourced compliance with a subpoena, and that my only job is to hand over raw documents, and I don’t take responsibility,” Connolly said, assuring Shelanski that he is trying to help him. “When I ran an organization, I made it my business to know what the legal department was up to.” And “on a bipartisan basis, that’s going to be the point of view of this committee,” Connolly added. “You are playing into the hands of your critics.”

Other members raised questions about the Labor Department’s coming controversial rule on conflicts of interest of financial advisers, wondering whether OIRA or other White House officials lean on agencies for a certain result. Shelanski said that while all White House officials speak informally, they all know OIRA’s role is to make “independent” judgments in a more formal review process. OIRA would never tell the Housing and Urban Development Department, for example, what policy path to choose, he said.

In the end, Chairman Meadows told Shelanski, “From this point forward, we will presume you will comply with [the] subpoena” and agree on its scope, while providing a timetable on implementation of GAO recommendations.

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