Democrats Probing Regulatory Overhaul Task Forces

By Cheryl Bolen and Madi Alexander

Top Democrats on House Oversight and Judiciary committees are seeking a full list of names and detailed information by Aug. 25 about task forces set up in each federal agency that are charged with recommending rules for repeal, replacement or modification.

On Feb. 24, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that directed federal agencies to establish a regulatory reform officer (RRO) and a Regulatory Reform Task Force. In many cases, the names of task force members and their meetings with private-sector advocates have not been made public.

Each task force was required by May 25 to provide a report to its agency head detailing the agency’s progress toward identifying regulations to be considered for repeal, replacement, or modification. Bloomberg BNA has filed Freedom of Information Act requests for copies of these reports.

“We write to express our alarm concerning the lack of transparency, accountability, and independence of the Regulatory Reform Task Forces,” said an Aug. 7 letter signed by Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking members of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and Judiciary Committee, respectively.

Undue Influence?

Also signing the letter were Reps. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Government Operations, and David Cicilline (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law.

The letter was sent to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and Neomi Rao, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), the agency within OMB that reviews all significant federal regulations.

Democrats had nine specific requests, including a full description of each task force as well as the names, titles, and organizations of each task force established under the executive order.

Several requests appeared aimed at ethical concerns, such as lists of task force members who have recused themselves because of prior employment, members with written certifications disclosing financial interests, meetings with non-governmental entities, and advocacy materials.

Response to FOIA

To date, the Department of Transportation has been the only agency to provide Bloomberg BNA its initial task force progress report, which was filed by Judith Kaleta, acting general counsel.

Four agencies responded to FOIA requests seeking information about their regulatory reform officer and members of their task forces. The Securities and Exchange Commission sent a redacted email that appears to obscure the name of its officer.

The Department of Education, on the other hand, sent a link to an April 25 memorandum posted to its public website that lists the names and titles of its officers and task force members and information about its planned activities.

The Department of Agriculture sent a copy of one email showing that Rebeckah Adcock is its regulatory reform officer. Adcock, former senior director of government relations at CropLife America, is not listed on USDA’s website, but news reports list her as a senior adviser to Secretary Sonny Perdue.

In an emailed statement, the Food and Drug Administration said it did not have responsive records. “The regulatory reform task force is at the cabinet level. FDA is not a cabinet level agency,” it said.

Federal Records Act

The Democrats’ letter asks OMB to explain why some agencies have refused to disclose the names of task force members in response to FOIA requests. In addition to the SEC, the Department of Veterans Affairs sent Bloomberg BNA a redacted memorandum in response to its FOIA request.

Democrats said they were concerned about potential conflicts of interest and task force members profiting from their activities, in addition to the secrecy of meetings.

It is also unclear whether every executive branch agency maintains a record of their meetings as required by the Federal Records Act, the letter said.

“Simply put, it is unacceptable for federal agencies to operate in such a clandestine and unaccountable manner especially when the result could be the undoing of critical public health and safety protections,” the letter said.

OMB Assessing Request

It is unclear whether OMB will respond to the Democrats’ letter. An opinion issued May 1 by the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice said members of Congress may request information from the executive branch, which may respond at its discretion, but such requests do not trigger any obligation to respond.

OMB told Bloomberg BNA that it was assessing the letter, which it had just received.

To contact the reporter on this story: Cheryl Bolen in Washington at cbolen@bna.com and Madi Alexander in Washington at malexander@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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