Watchdog group that filed lawsuit calls the Trump administration's statement that it received 100,000 public comments a "cynical stunt."
The White House has no records relating to its categorization or analysis of public input on how it should reorganize government, according to the results of a lawsuit filed by a watchdog group.
Following President Trump’s 2017 executive order calling on all federal agencies to reform themselves by shedding workers and restructuring their operations, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney personally called on American citizens to submit their ideas for “making the federal government more efficient, effective and accountable to the American people.” OMB subsequently set up a website for the public to submit those ideas, and later said it had received more than 100,000 submissions and distributed them to relevant agencies.
It then took the site down, leading Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility to submit a Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to the public feedback. PEER, a frequent critic of the Trump administration, sued OMB after it did not hear back. That in turn led OMB’s FOIA office to inform PEER that it had “conducted a search of its files for documents that are responsive to the request and no responsive records were located.”
PEER specifically requested a compilation of the agencies and programs addressed in the public's suggestions, OMB’s analysis of the proposals, the criteria OMB used to make assessments of the comments, and any decisions to include the proposals in actual policies.
To Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director, the lack of supporting documentation suggests the entire request for public input was just for show.
“How could they not locate 100,000 comments?” Ruch said. “The White House call for public involvement in reforming government seems to have been merely a cynical stunt.”
An OMB official did not comment on why the agency could not produce documents.
“OMB requested public comments on government reorganization and passed those comments on to the relevant agencies for use in developing their plans,” the official said.
Rep. Elijah Cummigs, D-Md., the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, has asked Mulvaney for copies of the reorganization plans themselves and for his panel to hold hearings on them. Agencies turned over initial versions of their plans to OMB in June of last year and final drafts in September. Lawmakers have not yet viewed the proposals and said they do not know if agencies met their deadlines. Early efforts by Government Executive to obtain copies of the plans through FOIA requests were denied, with the administration citing the deliberative process as the reason.
The administration initially said the plans would be made fully available in Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget, though only a handful of agencies offered details in that document. Mulvaney recently told a congressional committee the White House would unveil the complete agency reform plans later this month. Even at that point, Ruch said, the process will have lacked transparency.
“We will likely never know if the public registered strong preferences supporting or exactly opposite what the Trump team has done,” Ruch said.
Congress included several provisions in a recently passed governmentwide spending bill to ensure the Trump administration consults with lawmakers before consolidating offices or shedding workers. Several agencies have already risked running afoul of those provisions.
"The fact that the Republican-controlled Congress had to pass legislation to require the Trump administration to show us their secret reorganization plans is indicative of just how extensive the administration’s obstruction of congressional oversight has become," Cummings said after the omnibus was enacted.