Washington -- According to excellent reporting by Michael Stratford at Politico, Secretary Betsy DeVos is trying to stop Department of Education employees from communicating with their counterparts in the legislative branch.
In particular, she is forbidding all communications except those that go through the Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs (OLCA), and she is breaking up the department's Budget Service by transferring its employees to other units of the department.
Three observations are in order.
First, I can speak from direct personal experience on the matter, as I was once the gatekeeper at OLCA for all communications, in the realm of higher education, between department employees and the Hill. This necessarily included budget and fiscal matters. This did not mean, however, that there couldn't be direct communication between, for example, the Budget Service and the appropriations committees'staffs, or the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). It only meant OLCA would be kept the loop. I always encouraged as much direct communication as possible. If something came up that might be a problem, then OLCA would get involved.
Second, the action by DeVos to move the division responsible for cost estimation and analysis to the Office of Federal Student Aid (OFSA) demonstrates that DeVos wants a tight grip on this particularly sensitive subject area. OFSA, which was established two decades ago to be a "performance based organization" headed by a professional administrator (with a term overlapping political administrations) has now become a political instrument of the Secretary. OFSA is a reliable component of iron triangles controlled by outside interest groups. (See earlier posts on iron triangles, Parts I through V.)
Third, it is important to note that there are limits to what DeVos can do to stop communications between federal employees and the legislative branch. Federal employees have every right under the Lloyd-Lafollette Act to share information without interference. They do not lose their rights as citizens and taxpayers just because they are federal employees. This is particularly true when it comes to matters of mismanagement, waste, fraud, and abuse.
Fourteen years ago, working in the Department's National Center for Education Research (NCER), I observed fraud and abuse taking place in the student loan program and tried to stop it through regular departmental channels. Then, as now, the department was in the grip of an iron triangle and did not want to hear about it. I therefore sought advice from the department's Office of Ethics about how I might bring this to the attention of others outside the department in order to stop it. The answer was the Lloyd-LaFollette Act. Here, from my records, is a notification I gave to NCER that I was working on ending an illegally claimed subsidy in the student loan program:
I am gratified that others beyond the Department have valued my findings. I have continued my work under the guidance of the Office of Ethics, which has advised me that, on my own time as a citizen and taxpayer, I am free to conduct analyses independent from my duties as a federal employee. This office has also advised me that under the Lloyd Lafollette Act (5 USC 7211), "The right of employees, individually or collectively, to petition Congress or a Member of Congress, or to furnish information to either House of Congress, or to a committee or Member thereof, may not be interfered with or denied." Accordingly, I have assisted the Government Accountability Office with their September, 2004, report on 9.5 subsidy abuses as well as Congress on both the Taxpayer Teacher Protection Act of 2004 and the newly introduced Student Loan Abuse Prevention Act of 2005.
Many federal employees, if they read this, will be surprised to know that they have such rights. Secretary DeVos, of course, is not going advise departmental employees that this option is available to them. But it is. And if this attempt at suppressing the flow of information from the department to the Congress in any way involves evidence of mismanagement, program abuse, waste of taxpayer funds, racketeering, and the like, then it is the obligation of federal employees to speak up and to exercise their rights.
Let the information flow.