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Mr. GRASSLEY. Madam President, there is finally some sunshine on the Capitol dome today, and it is a welcome change from all the snow we have had this winter, so it is appropriate that this is Sunshine Week. But that is not a reference to the weather. Sunshine Week is a nonpartisan, open-government initiative led by the American Society of News Editors.
It is a good time, then, to talk about congressional oversight and the need for Congress to keep a watchful eye on the executive branch. That is what oversight is all about--checks and balances in government.
I would like to refer to the President's inaugural address and use it as a benchmark for measuring sunshine in government. President Obama promised in the inaugural address to bring more sunshine to the Federal Government, and I want to quote him.
Those of us who manage the public's dollar will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.
So let's just see how what has taken place in the last 15 months measures against this very good standard the President set in the inaugural address. I couldn't agree more with the President on what he said. The government should do its business in the light of day. Unfortunately, in my work, I have noticed no improvement in the openness of the Federal Government.
One vital step the President could have taken to ensure greater transparency would have been to order agencies to be more forthcoming in responding to requests from Congress--not just from this Senator but from any Senator. He could have instructed them to review and revise some of the secretive policies that have developed over the years. These policies are not required by law and simply serve to frustrate the ability of Congress to gather information we need in order to act as a check on the power and responsibilities of the executive branch. However, the President has apparently not taken that step because the agencies have been as aggressive as ever in withholding information from Congress.
Throughout my career here in the Senate, I have actively conducted oversight of the executive branch, regardless of who controls Congress or the White House. So that means, for me, as a Republican, I feel I have been just as aggressive, or more so, with a Republican President as with a Democratic President because it is our constitutional duty as legislators to do this.
These issues are typically about basic good government and accountability. They are not about party politics, and they surely aren't about ideology. The resistance is often fierce--resistance from the bureaucracy, that is--protecting itself in what the bureaucracy does best. It loves to protect itself from scrutiny, and it works overtime to keep embarrassing facts from Congress and, in turn, from public scrutiny.
When the agencies I am reviewing get defensive and refuse to respond to my requests, you know what. It makes me simply wonder what they are trying to hide. They act as if documents in government files belong to them. These unelected officials seem to think they alone have the right to decide who gets access to that information--collected, by the way, at taxpayers' expense. Well, I have news for them. These documents in the government files belong to the people, and the elected representatives of the people have a right to see them. That right is essential to carry out our oversight functions under the Constitution.
I had hoped President Obama's commitment to a more open government would mean major changes that would enable more effective congressional oversight. As he said in his inaugural address, those who manage public dollars ought to be held to account and do business in the light of day. But actions always speak louder than words. Given my experience in trying to pry information out of the executive branch, I am disappointed to report that the principles the President articulated so well are not being put into practice.
The administration seems to act as if government officials ought to be held
to account and do business in the light of the day except when they do not want to.
There are too many exceptions to count, and I am just going to list a few. Let's contrast the President's words with the agencies' actions. The President's words say that government should do business in the light of day. The agencies' actions say except when it comes to improper payment of Medicare.
As a part of my oversight function of Medicare, Congress reviews annual reports that the administration is required to produce. One of these reports is on improper Medicare payments. That was due last November. Congress is still waiting to see the numbers for improper payments made to specific types of health care providers and for specific services. Improper payment rates vary widely among different types of providers and, of course, services. So this information would help us to determine where to focus our efforts. We have not received such breakdowns of improper payments since the year 2007. We need these numbers to evaluate how the Federal Government is addressing fraud, waste, and abuse and to inform our discussions on legislation about health care financing.
Let's go to another example because I want to repeat the President's words: Government should do business in the light of day. Their actions say: Except when it comes to potential Medicaid fraud. Overutilization of health services and health care fraud play a significant role in the rising cost of our health care system.
I wrote to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services 3 months ago about what they are doing about overutilization of health care services. I specifically asked about a Medicaid prescriber in south Florida who--now hear this--who wrote over 96,000 prescriptions for mental health drugs, nearly twice the number written by the second highest prescriber. It was just a simple question about one Medicare prescriber, and I am still waiting for a response.
On another example--his words would say government should do business in the light of day. The actions of the administration say except when it comes to protecting the privacy of an al-Qaida terrorist.
Listen to this. In preparation for a hearing on Christmas Day bombing attempts, my Republican colleagues and I on the Judiciary Committee requested a copy of something very simple, a copy of the bomber's visa application. We wanted to learn more about why he was given permission to enter the United States in the first place, and why his visa wasn't revoked after his father warned the U.S. officials that he might be planning something.
The State Department first tried to withhold the document on grounds that it might be evidence in a criminal proceeding. But after the Justice Department said that was not an issue, you know what. The State Department comes along and tries to not cooperate. The State Department changed its position and claimed that a provision in the immigration law required them to protect the al-Qaida terrorist's privacy by withholding documents about how he was given permission to enter the country.
After going through all that, all I can say is--transparency, on a little simple visa application, and it cannot be given to us?
On another example, the President says: Government should do business in the light of day. Their actions say: Except when it comes to information about how Treasury officials allowed AIG executives to make off with millions of taxpayer dollars. Since last December, I have exchanged a series of letters with Treasury Secretary Geithner and his staff. I have some detailed questions about exactly which executives received which kind of payments under which contracts, and then why the Treasury Department did not do more to stop those payments. I even addressed the issue directly with Secretary Geithner at a Finance Committee hearing. He promised that I would get the information I was seeking. Yet Treasury Department lawyers are still withholding the documents on the grounds that they have to protect the privacy of AIG executives.
Is government doing its business in the light of day? No. They are still refusing to answer questions about why Treasury regulators allowed AIG to make large severance payments, even though the statute provided the authority to stop those payments.
On another example, and to repeat the President's words: Government should do business in the light of day. What do the actions show? Except when it comes to allegations of misconduct in the Department of Justice.
When Attorney General Eric Holder and I met during his confirmation process, I provided him with a binder that thick full of unanswered letters that I had written regarding the FBI and Justice Department oversight issues in the Bush administration. I was trying to give the Attorney General an opportunity to clear the deck so somehow it was not mixed up with the new administration. I had promises of renewed efforts to accommodate my information requests. The Department has not altered its policies of withholding documents relating to personnel matters and any other matter that might be the subject of internal reviews in the Justice Department.
For years I have been seeking internal Justice Department e-mails related to the FBI's use of so-called exigent letters, together with telephone records of Americans, without a subpoena, and even when there is no legitimate emergency. At first the excuse was that the Congress had to wait for the inspector general to finish a review, but that review is complete at long last. Yet the documents that were supposed to be provided are still being withheld.
Congress is not the only one from whom the executive branch is withholding information. I asked the Government Accountability Office in September about its difficulties in obtaining access to records and other information from the Federal agencies over the last year. As an investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office investigates how the Federal Government spends taxpayers' dollars, and in order to do that work the GAO requires access to agency documents.
So what has been the record of the Government Accountability Office? They have told me that it generally receives good cooperation, but it has and continues to have access issues at certain agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security. According to the Government Accountability Office, Homeland Security has ``posed continual access challenges for GAO since the department began operations in 2003.''
The Government Accountability Office also indicated that access to information at the Justice Department and the FBI is also particularly problematic. Despite a bipartisan request--get this--a bipartisan request from both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees to audit the FBI's human capital management of its counterterrorism division, the Government Accountability Office has been stonewalled by the Justice Department with new and unprecedented claims that the FBI's intelligence-related functions are off-limits for GAO review.
Understand this: This is the top Republican, top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and counterparts on the Senate Judiciary Committee. So it is bipartisan and it is bicameral. Even the Government Accountability Office has trouble getting the information.
The public has also been stonewalled when making requests for records under the Freedom of Information Act. When he first took office, the President back-issued a memo on the Freedom of Information Act to the heads of executive agencies. Listen as I quote. Who is not going to agree with this? The President is doing what a President who campaigned on openness and transparency in government and accountability should be doing. He is doing what he said he was going to do in the campaign. But having it come out the other end of the pipeline, it doesn't seem to work that way.
The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because of errors and failures that might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.
Then he goes on to instruct the executive agencies to:
..... adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in the Freedom of Information Act, and to usher in a new era of open government.
I compliment the President of the United States. Such a good statement, and just what government ought to be standing for because the public's business ought to be public.
The President may have issued a pledge of openness and transparent government, but this week we had the National Security Archive release findings of its Freedom of Information Act audit and found that the administration ``has not conquered the challenge of communicating and enforcing that message throughout the Executive Branch.''
Particularly, the organization found that requests as old as 18 years still exist in the freedom of information system. Somebody made a request 18 years ago, and it has not been granted? Probably the guy who asked for it, or whoever asked for it, is dead and buried now. Why can't something like that be done? It does not meet the commonsense test that we are interested in bringing to Washington--Washington, an island surrounded by reality. And only in the unreal world could there be a freedom of information request 18 years old that has not yet been granted.
This organization also found that five agencies appear to be releasing less and withholding more information, even since this President's Executive order has been in place. How can people thumb their noses at the President of the United States if they are working under his direction? The White House has said it is committed to more open and transparent government. In his memo to the heads of the executive agencies, the President said ``openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government,'' and that ``transparency promotes accountability.''
Again--extreme compliment to the President of the United States for setting a standard. That is absolutely in the spirit of representative government. But somehow the message has clearly not gotten through.
It comes back to us and our constitutional responsibilities of checks and balances. It is our job in Congress to ensure that agencies are more transparent and responsive to the people we represent. Congress is not doing its job if we do not hold agencies accountable and ensure that executive policies reflect the interests of our constituents. In other words, the public's business ought to be public.
I will continue doing what I can to hold feet to the fire. It would be helpful if the President would use his authority to require agencies to change their actions to be consistent with his words.
I do not get a chance to compliment this President very much, but he surely has set the standard here that we ought to have in our Government. It just proves, if he really wants it to happen, even if you are President of the United States, it is difficult to get people down in the bowels of the bureaucracy to carry out what you want.
You wonder why people in this country are cynical. That is one reason. But the President can do it. He ought to call all these birds in that are frustrating his principles and look them in the eye and tell them: Either do what I want or get out of government.
I yield the floor.
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