The nominee to lead the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel acknowledged that all members of Congress have the authority to conduct oversight of the executive branch, and that agencies have a responsibility to accommodate requests by members for information needed to perform their oversight function.
That might seem like a statement of the obvious. But the Office of Legal Counsel issued a controversial opinion earlier this year that took a much more limited view of congressional oversight power:
“The constitutional authority to conduct oversight — that is, the authority to make official inquiries into and to conduct investigations of executive branch programs and activities — may be exercised only by each house of Congress or, under existing delegations, by committees and subcommittees (or their chairmen),” the OLC opinion said. “Individual members of Congress, including ranking minority members, do not have the authority to conduct oversight in the absence of a specific delegation by a full house, committee, or subcommittee.” See Authority of Individual Members of Congress to Conduct Oversight of the Executive Branch, Office of Legal Counsel, May 1, 2017.
Objecting to this narrow OLC conception of oversight, Sen. Chuck Grassley placed a hold on the nomination of Steven A. Engel to become the new Assistant Attorney General in charge of the OLC until Mr. Engel provided an acceptable response to Grassley’s concerns on the matter.
Yesterday, Senator Grassley withdrew his hold after Mr. Engel admitted, in written responses to questions from Grassley entered into the Congressional Record, that the OLC opinion was defective.
“Mr. Engel’s responses, both in writing and in person, indicate that he agrees each Member, whether or not a chairman of a committee, is a constitutional officer entitled to the respect and best efforts of the executive branch to respond to his or her requests for information to the extent permitted by law,” Sen. Grassley said.
“I am satisfied that Mr. Engel understands the obligation of all Members of Congress to seek executive branch information to carry out their constitutional responsibilities and the obligation of the executive branch to respect that function and seek comity between the branches. Therefore, I agree a vote should be scheduled on his nomination, and I wish him the very best in his new role,” he said.
See Removal of Nomination Objection, Congressional Record, July 19, 2017, pp. S4077-4079.