Lawmakers cite 2016 precedent for withholding money for officials' pay.
House Democrats on Tuesday threatened to withhold the salaries of select employees at three federal departments, citing the Trump administration’s failure to comply with requests for interviews.
Officials at the departments of Justice, Commerce and Interior face the potential of withdrawn pay, according to a series of letters sent by the House Oversight and Reform Committee. The warnings are part of ongoing investigations by the panel into the inclusion of a question about citizenship on the decennial census and an ethics probe into Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt.
A provision regularly included in an annual spending bill gives Congress the capacity to block the salary for any employee who “prohibits or prevents, or attempts or threatens to prohibit or prevent, any other officer or employee of the federal government from having any direct oral or written communication or contact with any member, committee, or subcommittee of the Congress.”
In each of the five letters, oversight Chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., told the employees to “please be advised” that their salaries were at risk. Cummings cited precedent from a Government Accountability Office ruling in 2016 instructing the Housing and Urban Development Department to revoke the salary of its employees for violating the same clause. GAO is responsible for enforcing violations of the Anti-Deficiency Act, the law that prohibits the misuse of appropriations.
The committee requested interviews with the counselor to the attorney general; the general counsel, deputy chief of staff and director of policy, and former senior adviser and counsel at the Commerce Department; and the administrative assistant to the deputy secretary, scheduling and advance director, executive assistant to the office of the deputy secretary, and acting chief of staff and associate deputy secretary at the Interior Department. The Commerce and Justice requests went directly to the individuals, while the Interior requests were sent to Cole Rojewski, the department’s director of congressional and legislative affairs.
In seven of the eight cases, the Democrats outlined a series of steps they previously took to arrange for the interviews and various documents. In some instances, the Trump administration pushed back or requested more information about the nature of the requests. Other communications were ignored entirely.
Bernhardt told a panel of the House Appropriations Committee on Monday that he was refusing the interviews to protect career employees. While Cummings is only threatening to punish the higher-ranking officials blocking those individuals from testifying, the civil servants could also find themselves in a difficult legal position.
The committee asked for a response by May 10 for the Interior requests and May 13 for the others. The Commerce Department did not appear willing to meet its deadline.
“The Department of Commerce has worked in good faith with the committee and will look for more opportunities to do so,” a spokesperson said. “The department has delivered over 13,200 pages of documents pertaining to the committee’s requests, and the secretary himself voluntarily testified for nearly seven hours before the committee. The 2020 Census has been and continues to be on time and on budget.”
Oversight Democrats said Secretary Wilbur Ross declined to answer “key questions” about the citizenship question during that testimony. The committee has since voted to subpoena Ross for the documents it is seeking.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the request, or the threat to withhold salaries. An Interior spokesperson said the department was "reviewing the request."