GOP legislators warn HHS' Price that new communication policy could violate federal law

Two GOP representative are concerned that a memo circulated among HHS staff may prevent direct conversations with Congress.

Two Republican legislators said a new Department of Health and Human Services memo may prevent staffers from corresponding directly with members of Congress—and violate federal laws that safeguard whistleblowers.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, penned a letter (PDF) late last week to HHS Secretary Tom Price in response to an internal HHS memo. The memo said staff members must go through the department’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Legislation before communicating with legislators or their staffers.

The two lawmakers wrote that the policy could be in violation of federal law and open employees up to punishment for speaking directly with members of Congress.

That would likely “substantially chill those communications,” the representatives wrote.

They gave Price until May 18 to explain the decision to distribute the memo and hand over documents and internal communications about that message.

The original memo from Chief of Staff Lance Leggitt, which was attached to Chaffetz and Grassley’s letter, said that the policy is designed to avoid “unnecessary problems in our relationship with Congress.”

HHS staffers may interpret the rule as a ban on lawful, protected discussions with legislators, according to Chaffetz and Grassley, as it does not contain an exception for those cases. It could lead to misunderstandings as to what their rights are.

The two legislators also called on Price to issue clearer guidelines for these conversations so that the right to communicate directly with Congress is articulated to staff members.

“Absent such a clear communication from you, agency management may seek to intimidate whistleblowers from providing information to Congress. We will not allow that to happen and trust that nor will you,” they wrote. “Protecting whistleblowers is crucial to effective government and the oversight process.”