Hundreds of Congressional Inquiries Flood EPA

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By Anthony Adragna

April 12 — Criticism about the Environmental Protection Agency's slow pace of responding to congressional inquiries has been unwavering throughout the 114th Congress, but information provided to Bloomberg BNA shows what the small team of agency staff tasked with handling the requests is up against.

In 2015 alone, Congress sent the EPA 884 letters seeking a response, 60 separate document requests and received back more than 276,000 pages of documents, the information shows.

EPA Interactions with Congress 2015

Republicans in Congress and others who served at EPA in prior administrations say the requests are not unusual and an essential part of conducting vigorous oversight of what opponents describe as a rogue agency. But agency defenders say the inquiries have gotten broader and hamper its ability to protect human health and the environment.

The data have inherent limitations because no historic information on document requests exists for comparison. But the volume of information sought raises the long-simmering question—considered by administrations of both parties—of where the line for legitimate oversight rests.

“EPA is probably one of the few agencies that gets this many,” Jeffrey Lubbers, a professor of administrative law at American University, told Bloomberg BNA. “Because agencies have to take these requests very seriously, they have to spend a lot of time on them. These sorts of requests cut into the ability of the agency to fulfill its mission.”

Long-Standing Congressional Frustration

Democrats and Republicans in Congress have long criticized slow responses from executive branch agencies on oversight requests.

In January, members of both parties on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee vowed “not to give up” on document requests and called the lack of respect for congressional oversight “disrespectful” (05 DEN A-15, 1/8/16).

Thoughts on Volume of Congressional Requests

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.): “If they actually acted in a responsible way, they wouldn't get all these letters. These letters are all generated by their irresponsible actions.”

Marianne Horinko, former EPA acting administrator for President Bush: “These numbers are par for the course. Congress has always been a thorn in the side for EPA, and sometimes for good reason.”

Jeffrey Lubbers, a professor of administrative law at American University: “EPA is probably one of the few agencies that gets this many. These sorts of requests cut into the ability of the agency to fulfill its mission.”

Months earlier, Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee floated the idea of holding up all EPA nominations because they said Administrator Gina McCarthy was “stonewalling” congressional inquiries.

The situation has not improved since then, according to half a dozen Senate Republicans.

“It's gotten worse with the EPA,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a member of Senate Republican leadership, told Bloomberg BNA. “If they actually acted in a responsible way, they wouldn't get all these letters. These letters are all generated by their irresponsible actions.”

‘Rogue Agency.'

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who first floated the idea of blocking all EPA nominees, told Bloomberg BNA the agency had not improved and said the situation was indicative of broader problems at the agency.

“The broader issue with them is not only lack of responsiveness to document requests but lack of responsiveness on the legal issues that they consistently, consistently ignore,” Sullivan said. “Gina McCarthy runs a rogue agency.”

Even some normally staunch defenders of the EPA said a lack of responsiveness to inquiries was a “recurring problem” with executive branch agencies.

“As a general proposition, the executive branch is creakingly, painfully slow in document responses,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told Bloomberg BNA. “You see it in bipartisan questions, bipartisan updates and bipartisan commentary. You say, ‘thanks a lot for getting me the documents I asked for two months ago the day before a hearing.' ”

Historic Parallels Seen

The volume of document requests was not surprising to EPA veterans from the presidency of George W. Bush.

“These numbers are par for the course,” Marianne Horinko, former EPA acting administrator during Bush administration, told Bloomberg BNA. “Congress has always been a thorn in the side for EPA, and sometimes for good reason.”

Horinko, now president of the Horinko Group, said the agency used to get so many requests from former House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) that they dubbed the inquiries “Dingell-grams” and had one employee—nicknamed “Mrs. Dingell”—in charge of responding to them.

“For the last 50 years, federal agencies have checked their mail with one eye squinted open, hoping they haven't received what became known as Dingell-grams,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in 2005. “In the 1980s, the EPA even had an employee whose sole responsibility was responding to Chairman Dingell's inquiries. And it was recognized that her job was not an easy one.”

The workload for EPA goes beyond congressional letters, document requests and document deliveries. Officials additionally responded to a subpoena, provided a “significant number of briefings” to congressional staff on various issues and testified before Congress on 40 separate occasions, according to an EPA spokeswoman.

Concern Over Vagueness

Some observers told Bloomberg BNA the recent wave of requests had become so broad as to toe the line between legitimate oversight and harassment.

“The 2015 document requests I’ve heard about sound much, much broader than specific, legitimate oversight would require, particularly those from the House Science Committee,” Chris Miller, former environmental adviser to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), told Bloomberg BNA. “In general, non-legitimate oversight has a chilling effect on the agency, its communications and its functioning.”

Such expansive requests are particularly troubling given the agency continues to have its budget cut, Bill Becker, executive director at the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, told Bloomberg BNA.

“Responding to these requests, many of which are entirely frivolous, detracts from the agency’s mission,” Becker said. “This becomes especially problematic as Congress cuts EPA’s, and state and local agencies’ budgets, at the same time.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Anthony Adragna in Washington at aadragna@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com