Jun 30, 2021 - Politics & Policy

House targets secret White House visitors

Photo illustration of President Biden in a Zoom room with anonymous participants.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Doug Mills/New York Times/Pool/Getty Images

A House committee is trying to force the White House to disclose its virtual visitors, using the power of the purse to push the West Wing to retroactively reveal who's been Zooming-in since January.

Why it matters: President Biden's team has begun disclosing in-person visitors, resuming a practice abandoned by Donald Trump. But the pandemic has forced huge segments of its work into cyberspace, and transparency advocates say the continued refusal to disclose virtual visitors is keeping the public in the dark.

What's new: Language approved Tuesday by the Democrat-led House Appropriations Committee seeks to compel the White House to produce virtual visitor logs, as well.

  • A committee report accompanying a general government appropriations bill directs the White House to retroactively reveal all virtual visitors going back to Biden's Inauguration Day.
  • "[T]he Committee is concerned that social-distancing procedures and the resulting increase in virtual meetings will limit the amount of relevant disclosures and harm the public interest," it wrote.
  • The report directs the president's staff to brief the committee on its efforts to disclose that information by the fall.

What they're saying: Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who chairs the Appropriations panel on financial services and general government, added the language to the committee report.

  • In a statement emailed to Axios, Quigley called the lack of virtual visitor logs "a loophole" in the White House's transparency efforts.
  • "While I am very encouraged that the Biden Administration reinstated the policy of publicly disclosing their White House visitor logs in May, I look forward to working with them to establish virtual visitor logs to ensure and expand accountability in the executive branch," Quigley wrote.
  • The White House did not respond to inquiries about the language. Press secretary Jen Psaki previously said the administration had no plans to disclose virtual visitors.

Be smart: Quigley's language is not legally binding, since it's contained in a committee report rather than the appropriations bill itself. But his office expects the White House will play ball.

  • "Report language does not have statutory force, (so) departments and agencies are not legally bound by their declarations," according to the Congressional Research Service.
  • "These documents do, however, explain congressional intent, and executive branch agencies take them seriously because they must justify their budget requests annually to the Appropriations committees."
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