The Justice Department’s staffed-up congressional-response team is working to strike a collaborative tone while girding for high-profile showdowns with the House Republican majority.
Carlos Uriarte, who heads DOJ’s Office of Legislative Affairs, has in recent months hired at least five congressional oversight veterans, including top Democratic staffers from the Senate Judiciary and House Oversight committees. The FBI, a primary target of House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), also is searching for a new congressional affairs chief.
The bolstered legislative affairs staff helped the department pass an initial test by submitting more than 400 pages of material last week—meeting Jordan’s subpoena deadline for records on Attorney General Merrick Garland’s memo warning of threats against school board members.
Jordan told reporters it was “a good start, but we’ve got to see how it continues.” His spokesman, Russell Dye, said the committee is hopeful that Uriarte cooperates with oversight requests.
Although sustaining cordial relationships with the House GOP may be unrealistic, Hill veterans can pay dividends for DOJ by reaching compromises on less politically toxic matters, preparing officials for congressional testimony, and establishing a record of cooperation that could help the Justice Department prevail in a contempt of Congress lawsuit.
“There are countless personal crusades going on; there are larger political forces going on; there’s a presidential campaign season starting. I think all of those factors combined make for a very unpredictable environment that makes for a very difficult legislative affairs job,” said Sandeep Prasanna, a Miller & Chevalier attorney who used to work on legislative affairs at DOJ and oversight on Capitol Hill.
“It’s encouraging that House Judiciary is responding well to DOJ’s first production, but all signs point to more document requests, more subpoenas, and more testimony,” added Prasanna.
Uriarte, who was confirmed unanimously by the Senate and started his Capitol Hill career as an aide to then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), told Jordan in a letter in January that he was committed to providing prompt and complete responses to “legitimate” congressional inquiries. He balanced that pledge against the department’s longstanding need to maintain the confidentiality of certain records.
The challenge will be convincing Republicans and the public that the department can be trusted when it cites active investigations or national security concerns as the reason it can’t disclose information to Congress.
Uriarte, who’s previously led investigations of the executive branch on House committees and worked on oversight matters at DOJ in the Obama administration, “is uniquely positioned to take on this task,” said a DOJ spokeswoman in a prepared statement.
Uriarte is “as prepared probably as one could be,” said Stephen Boyd, who led DOJ legislative affairs in the Trump era. “It’s obviously going to be a tough environment, but he seems to have the right mindset of engaging with members proactively whenever possible.”
Biden DOJ leaders may be cast as partisan obstructionists. But that wouldn’t prevent the legislative affairs office from privately establishing themselves as honest brokers with House Republicans and, perhaps more consequentially, within other DOJ divisions, said Boyd, now a partner at consultancy Horizon Global Solutions.
For instance, Uriarte could have influence within the Justice Department to speak up and satisfy requests for information to avoid blowups with Congress, Boyd said. This would be particularly helpful “when the Hill wants a piece of information and the department lacks a legitimate reason not to provide it.”
As Jordan’s Judiciary panel and the House Oversight and Accountability Committee start ratcheting up demands, Uriarte and his staff are likely working behind the scenes to try to make accommodations when possible, former officials said.
In situations where adversarial dynamics can’t be avoided, such as when DOJ leaders are called to testify before Congress, the department’s legislative office can leverage their familiarity with the opposing party’s members during so-called “murderboard” mock hearings.
Part of job for OLA staffers “is to try to create as real an environment as possible for the witness” in the training sessions “so that they’re not thrown off their feet,” said Prasanna, who was also a former investigator on the House Jan. 6 panel.
Experienced staff can prepare responses to particular inquiries and prevent investigations from going down rabbit-holes, former department attorneys said.
“In this heavy oversight climate, adding people in OLA means having more resources to manage and respond to congressional oversight” at a faster pace, said Jill Tyson, president of Tyson Global Advisors who until December worked closely with Uriarte as head of the FBI’s congressional affairs office. “That speed helps keep the temperature down. But inevitably when Congress doesn’t want to wait anymore and the fight becomes public, it is those lawyers who will help put out the fire.”
Tyson’s old position as the FBI’s principal Hill liaison remains vacant at a time when House oversight requests have increasingly targeted Wray with accusations such as that his agency is treating Catholics as violent extremists. Uriarte’s office coordinates FBI-specific oversight responses with the bureau’s own congressional affairs office.
The FBI has been searching since December for a new congressional affairs chief who can advocate for the FBI’s unique interests on the Hill amid heightened scrutiny, according to sources familiar with the matter. An FBI official confirmed the ongoing search, adding that the bureau’s oversight team has been very competent under an acting assistant director.
Contempt of Congress
Jordan and his Oversight Committee counterpart, Chair James Comer (R-Ky.), have combined to issue only one subpoena. The list of sensitive matters in their sights, such as the special counsel investigations and DOJ’s Hunter Biden probe, suggests that number will rise.
Plus the department is facing pressure from Democrats as well to provide more transparency into the classified documents found at the homes of both the former and current presidents.
The legislative affairs team is likely to keep negotiating on particular accommodations—including post-subpoena. Simultaneously, however, they’ll face difficult decisions about whether any particular battle is the one worth going to court over.
If the department were to ask the president to assert executive privilege, shielding information from Congress, that could prompt the House to hold DOJ officials in contempt, as happened to Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder.
A cooperative legislative affairs office would improve DOJ’s ability to defeat contempt litigation, said Crystal Jezierski, a former chief oversight counsel for House Judiciary Republicans.
“My instinct is” OLA “will really try to work with the Hill on a lot of the standard oversight that occurs,” said Jezierski, now a senior managing director at Guidepost Solutions. “Because if anything winds up in litigation, that’s going be important—trying to show that you have done everything that you can.”
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