WASHINGTON — Some Democrats in Congress objected Wednesday to early steps taken by the new Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to conduct a broad inquiry into President Barack Obama's promises to improve government transparency.
Reps. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, Gerald Connolly of Virginia and Peter Welch of Vermont complained in a letter to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., that his investigation will burden federal agencies responsible for producing government records under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act requested by citizens, journalists, companies and others. Cummings is the senior Democrat on the House oversight committee.
Issa last week demanded details of every such request during the last five years, plus copies of all letters or e-mails between government workers and people with pending requests. He said the effort would make sure that "all federal agencies respond in a timely, substantive and non-discriminatory manner" to requests for records under the information law. The five-year window would cover part of the Bush administration and the first years of Obama's presidency.
In their letter to Issa on Wednesday, the Democrats said the investigation would require government offices to turn over perhaps hundreds of thousands of documents. "Without a defined focus, your inquiry will place a significant burden on FOIA offices and divert limited staff from processing requests from the public," they wrote.
Issa's investigation into government transparency under Obama is among the earliest by Republicans since they won control of the House, and targets one of the first pledges Obama made after he moved into the White House. The investigation was at least partly prompted by reports last year from The Associated Press that the Homeland Security Department had sidetracked hundreds of requests for federal records to top political advisers, who wanted information about those requesting the materials.
In some cases the release of documents considered politically sensitive was delayed, according to more than 1,000 pages of e-mails obtained by the AP.
The Democrats said they were uncomfortable with Issa's request for names of all people who sought federal records, dates of their requests, descriptions of what they asked to receive and whether they ever received anything. They said Issa should modify his request to not include names. "It is unclear why the committee needs the identities of specific FOIA requesters," they wrote.
Names of people who ask the government for records and details about what they sought under the Freedom of Information Act are generally available publicly, and many are published by federal agencies online.