GOP lawmakers fear HHS is barring staffers from contacting Congress
Republican lawmakers are concerned that HHS may be trying to prohibit employees from corresponding with members of the legislative branch.
In a letter to HHS Secretary Tom Price dated Thursday, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said they were concerned by a recent HHS memo that told employees they must first talk to the agency's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Legislation before communicating with lawmakers or their staff. Chaffetz and Grassley said this possibly violates federal law.
"It forces employees to expose their communications with Congress to agency management, necessarily subjecting them to a significantly increased risk of reprisal," the letter said. "The effect will be to substantially chill those communications."
The HHS memo contained no exception for lawful, protected communications with Congress. In its current form, employees are likely to interpret it as a prohibition, and will not necessarily understand their rights, Chaffetz and Grassley wrote.
Grassley is a long-time advocate of open communication between federal government branches. In the 1980s, he introduced what is known as the Grassley anti-gag rider, which ensured that federal employees could have contact with members of Congress without needing to inform other officials at their respective agencies. The provision was meant to guarantee that executive branch agencies could alert Congress to problems that need to be fixed.
"Protecting whistle-blowers who courageously speak out is not a partisan issue—it is critical to the functioning of our government," the letter said.
The lawmakers have given Price until May 18 to explain why he disseminated this memorandum and hand over all documents and communications referring or relating to this directive.
Chaffetz and Grassley also requested that Price issue specific written guidance to all agency employees making them aware of their right to communicate directly and independently with Congress as soon as possible.
Chaffetz and Grassley both have generally supported the Trump administration on its policy endeavors.
An HHS spokesman did not return a request for comment on the letter.
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