Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., was one of the lawmakers who signed a letter to the White House.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., was one of the lawmakers who signed a letter to the White House. Alex Brandon/AP

Democratic Lawmakers Challenge Secrecy of Trump Deregulation Task Forces

Letter to White House decries participation by lobbyists with possible conflicts.

The regulatory review task forces set up by agencies under President Trump’s February executive order have secret membership and secret deliberations, according to a letter to the White House from four Democratic House members.

The critics drew on an investigation published in July jointly by The New York Times and ProPublica, which found that the task forces’ work has been “conducted in large part out of public view and often by political appointees with deep industry ties and potential conflicts.”

The reporters’ review of meeting sign-in sheets indicated that as many as a third of the participants were lawyers representing businesses with cases against regulatory agencies, or political donors, or employees of industry-funded organizations.

“We write to express our alarm concerning the lack of transparency, accountability and independence of the Regulatory Reform Task Forces,”  Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.; John Conyers Jr., D-Mich.; Gerry Connolly, D-Va.; and David Cicilline, D-R.I., said in an Aug. 7 letter to Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator Neomi Rao. 

“We believe that the interests of the American public must be paramount when reviewing the worthiness of regulations,” the letter stated. “Therefore, these task forces must have an effective and transparent guard against conflicts of interest, especially those in which industry lobbyists seek to overturn environmental and health protections for financial gain.”

The lawmakers, who serve as minority members of the Oversight and Government Reform and the Judiciary panels, warned that the secrecy and refusal of some agencies to disclose documentation could violate both the Federal Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act. They said the implementation of Executive Order 13777 must be “consistent with applicable law.”

“The task forces are eerily reminiscent of the secretive energy task force run by former Vice President Cheney,” they added, harking back to the George W. Bush administration. “Simply put, it is unacceptable for federal agencies to operate in such a clandestine and unaccountable manner, especially when the result could be the undoing of critical public health and safety protections.”

To illustrate how several employees could profit from their work on the task force, they noted that the wife of one task force member at the Environmental Protection Agency is the top lobbyist for a large oil company.

The lawmakers requested documents and information, including a description of every task force created pursuant to the executive order, a list of the names and titles of every member of each task force, and communications related to non-governmental entities participating in their meetings. They also asked for lists of every political appointee who has been granted a waiver or recusal from the task forces’ work.

They copied the Republican committee chairmen on the letter.

When Trump announced the executive order creating the task forces, he said, “Every regulation should have to pass a simple test. Does it make life better or safer for American workers or consumers? If the answer is ‘no,’ we will be getting rid of it and getting rid of it quickly.”

The White House did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.