In early 2011, a Republican senator wrote to the Obama administration asking for a response to claims by a whistleblower that firearms lost in a sting operation gone awry had been used in the murder of a federal border patrol agent named Brian Terry.
The GOP was in the minority then, and the senator, Charles Grassley of Iowa, controlled no committee nor had any power to compel the Obama administration to respond. But the Department of Justice replied to him anyway, writing a letter that denied the whistleblower’s claim. The letter turned out to be false, later to be formally retracted by the Justice Department, and the “gun-walking” operation known as Fast and Furious spiraled into a scandal for the Obama administration that led Republicans and more than a dozen Democrats in the House to cite former Attorney General Eric Holder for contempt of Congress.
Under a policy adopted by the Trump administration, the letter that catapulted Fast and Furious from mere headache to political nightmare likely would never have been sent. The White House has told federal departments and agencies that it will adhere to a stricter definition of congressional oversight than did the Obama administration. Government officials are now under no obligation to respond to requests for information and documents that do not come from committee chairmen, who, because of the GOP’s majorities in both chambers of Congress, are all Republicans. That means departments and agencies can essentially ignore requests from Democrats, which they have already done in more than 200 instances over President Trump’s first four months in office, according to a tally kept by party leaders.