Republicans on the House Government Reform Committee are threatening to punish the Health and Human Services Department if a series of routine oversight requests — unanswered for as many as two years — are not met by June 30.
“This administration seems to believe that Congress is just a bother,” said Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who chairs the Government Reform subcommittee on criminal justice, drug policy and human resources. “At some point we’re going to have to do something, or they won’t take us seriously.”
The move would mark a rare public clash between the GOP-controlled Congress and the Bush administration. One-party control has often enabled GOP leaders at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to work out their differences behind closed doors.
But in a scathing letter to HHS secretary Tommy Thompson last week, Souder and Government Reform chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) cite multiple instances in which the committee’s inquiries have failed to draw even a minimal response from the department.
The areas of inquiry include stem-cell research, medical marijuana, AIDS funding, human cloning and cervical cancer and human papillomavirus.
“We are especially concerned that two of these letters date back a full two years,” Davis and Souder wrote. “Withholding this information from Congress compromises our oversight responsibility and ability to make informed decisions on important policy matters. It also invites a separate investigation and consequent document requests.”
GOP sources suggested that the committee may be poised to issue wide-ranging subpoenas for key agencies within HHS, such as the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and may even go after the department’s budget.
“We are in appropriations season,” one Congressional source noted.
The letter from Davis and Souder doesn’t go that far, only citing “other avenues to provide the Department with additional incentives for full cooperation.”
In an interview, Davis played down the conflict, saying, “This is just the way [the game] works. You’ve just got to let them know you’re serious.” But he added, “If we have to issue subpoenas to get them to cooperate, we’ll issue subpoenas.”
Souder, whose subcommittee’s oversight agenda is at stake, was less sanguine.
“This administration is even less cooperative than the last administration,” Souder said in an interview.
Souder, a staunch social conservative, said he is perplexed by HHS’s repeated failures to respond, since he essentially shares President Bush’s outlook on health policy.
“The one thing this shows is [that the Bush administration is] strong-arming everybody,” Souder said. “They’re not just strong-arming liberals. They’re strong-arming conservatives.”
The subcommittee’s so-far fruitless inquiry regarding stem-cell research has been a key source of irritation. The panel sent its first inquiry to HHS on Oct. 8, 2002. When they followed up with the department on Aug. 23, 2003, the subcommittee staff was told that they would have a response within “the next few weeks,” according to Davis and Souder. Nothing came.
“In exasperation, the subcommittee finally resorted to a letter to [Thompson] on April 20 of this year,” they wrote in their recent letter. “Still, no response has been forthcoming.”
HHS officials did not respond to inquiries about the letter from Souder and Davis.
A White House spokesman said it is administration policy to comply with oversight requests from Congress.
The widespread complaints from Capitol Hill “are not grounded in reality,” White House spokesman Trent Duffy said. “This administration actively supports the oversight process and respects the Congress’ oversight function.”
Souder, however, said he believes “structural and attitudinal” forces inside the Bush administration discourage the “lower-down bureaucracy” from disclosing information to Congress.
One committee source suggested the tie-up may be part of a larger effort to undermine the Bush administration on health policy. The source said NIH, which studies the stem-cell issue, has only one political appointee — its director — while its bureaucracy is largely opposed to the president’s policies regarding research in that area.
Basically, many of the career scientists at NIH believe strongly in the potential of embryonic stem cells, the committee source said. Bush and others, on the other hand, have placed an emphasis on adult stem cells, an area of research that has itself shown promise while avoiding the moral and ethical issues that come with the scientific use of human embryos.
“My theory is that they don’t want that information [about the promise of adult stem-cell therapies] to get out,” the committee source said.
While Souder’s subcommittee carries one of the more demanding portfolios on the Government Reform panel — overseeing all or part of HHS, plus the departments of Commerce, Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice — the complaints he has made about foot-dragging on oversight have, to one degree or another, been uniform on the committee as a whole.
It this environment, the threat of subpoena has become a key tool for the committee in dealing with oversight of the Bush administration. Most recently, this tactic shook loose information that the full committee had been seeking for months regarding contracting for construction in Iraq. The committee came close to issuing subpoenas in earlier efforts to study narcotics trafficking in Afghanistan.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking member on Government Reform, suggested that the Bush administration does not feel obligated to cooperate with oversight demands because of the hand-in-glove relationship that has evolved between the branches under GOP control.
“It seems to me that the Republicans have been so compliant with this administration that the administration has taken them for granted,” Waxman said. “They’ve decided maybe that they don’t have to respond.”
But relations between GOP leaders and HHS have been strained for months, stretching back to revelations that an internal department analysis projected far greater costs for a prescription drug benefit than Members had been led to expect.
That led Democrats in Congress to demand answers about whether Thomas Scully, then the head of HHS’s Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, pressured the agency’s chief actuary to suppress the results of its analysis.
The controversy over Scully raised the temperature among Republicans, not just Democrats. Many conservatives had been persuaded to back the new entitlement in spite of deep reservations about its cost. The disclosure of the HHS number helped confirm fears that the administration failed to provide Congress with information that could have helped control spending.