House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Elijah Cummings, D-Md., says the Trump administration is blocking Congressional oversight activities.

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Elijah Cummings, D-Md., says the Trump administration is blocking Congressional oversight activities. J.Scott Applewhite/AP

House Democrats Clash With Education Department Over Watchdog’s Status

The Trump administration’s aborted effort to replace the IG prompts document demands and an oversight dispute.

The Trump administration’s strategy for resisting congressional oversight continued in the realm of the Education Department this week as two House Democrats reiterated their unmet demands for documents relating to alleged White House interference with the independence of an inspector general.

House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., teamed with Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif., in a letter to Deputy Education Secretary Mitchell Zais seeking materials as part of a probe into whether the administration had sought to ease out acting IG Sandra Bruce in connection with her investigation of the administration’s new approach to authorizing a trade school accrediting body.

President Trump in January 2019 proposed that longtime Education Department Deputy General Counsel Philip Rosenfelt take over for Bruce as acting watchdog, but withdrew the nomination on Feb. 1 for ethics-related reasons never made clear.

Democrats last winter complained that the nomination threatened the independence enjoyed by inspectors general, charging specifically that the plan was a reaction to incumbent Bruce’s investigation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s controversial move last September to revive the recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, which the Obama administration had revoked.

“Rather than cooperate with our investigation, the department is obstructing Congress’ constitutional responsibility to conduct oversight,” Cummings and DeSaulnier wrote. “The department has repeatedly blocked this inquiry, refused to provide requested documents, made inappropriate redactions to the few documents that were provided, and even ignored a request from a Member of Congress to discuss this matter further.”

They said the attempt to replace the acting IG “with an agency insider” was contrary to the role of inspectors general. And more broadly, the Democrats argued that “the department’s belated and baseless claim” about the proper nature of congressional oversight “appears to be part of an unprecedented cover-up by the Trump Administration across multiple executive branch agencies and departments.”

The two Democrats asked for all related documents by June 10.

The Education Department did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

But Cummings published a letter written to him on May 15 by newly installed acting Education General Counsel Reed Rubenstein—who has served Trump at the Justice Department and other agencies—challenging several of Cummings’ assumptions. President Trump is authorized under the 1998 Federal Vacancies Reform Act to name a permanent or acting successor for the vacancy created with the October 2018 retirement announcement of IG Kathleen Tighe, he argued. The required notice was given to incumbent Bruce and the Government Accountability Office. He declined to answer a query about why the Rosenfelt nomination was later rescinded, citing confidentiality.

And though Rubenstein stressed the department’s willingness to work with congressional oversight members to accommodate “lawful” document requests, he argued that previous correspondence had answered the lawmakers’ queries.

He then rejected the premise of Cummings and DeSaulnier’s investigation. “Here, Congress seeks deliberations about a presidential appointment, a core presidential function,” the political appointee wrote. “Yet we remain unclear about Congress’s legislative need and authority over these deliberations, much less any legal justification Congress might claim for piercing our constitutionally based confidentiality interest or measures it may suggest in mitigation of the obvious separation of powers concerns that are implicated.”