WASHINGTON (AP) — An internal memo instructing Health and Human Services employees to consult with senior department personnel before talking to Congress has outraged two congressional Republicans, and they're demanding answers from Secretary Tom Price.
In a letter released Tuesday, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah said federal employees have a constitutional right to communicate directly with Congress, and what looks like a gag order is "potentially illegal and unconstitutional."
"Federal employees have a constitutional right to communicate directly with Congress and 'petition the Government for a redress of grievances,' a fact the memorandum fails to note," the lawmakers wrote. "Congress has long protected that right."
The lawmakers said they obtained the memo, written by HHS chief of staff Lance Leggitt, telling employees that any contact with lawmakers or congressional staff should not occur "without prior consultation with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Legislation."
In a May 4 letter, the lawmakers called on Price to "correct this potential violation of federal law" and issue new guidance to all agency personnel informing them of their right to communicate directly and independently with lawmakers. They also said the new guidance should make clear that the agency won't retaliate against any employee exercising their right to bring problems to lawmakers' attention.
The lawmakers acknowledged that the memorandum does not ultimately prohibit all direct communication from HHS employees with members of Congress, but "the effect will be to substantially chill those communications."
"We will not allow that to happen and trust that nor will you," Grassley and Chaffetz wrote.
Amanda Smith, an HHS spokeswoman, said the memo is consistent with agency policy that has been in place for decades. She said a similar memo went out during Bill Clinton's presidency from his HHS secretary and that the purpose of that memo was to notify division chiefs of the role of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Legislation in coordinating policy responses with Congress.
"Transitions between administrations can mean significant staff turnover, which often leads to confusion and a breakdown of communications," Smith said.
Smith said HHS is responding to the lawmakers' inquiry and "if an HHS employee has concerns about waste, fraud or abuse at the agency, we want them to contact the appropriate officials so it can be stopped."
Grassley is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Chaffetz is the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
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