The Obama administration is refusing to provide information that congressional auditors say they need to root out waste and fraud in federal programs that pay out billions of dollars in disability benefits, stirring complaints about White House open-government practices.
The position taken by the Health and Human Services Department has resulted in a standoff with congressional investigators, who want to flush out cases of people who obtain jobs while collecting federal disability payments. That could be a violation of law under certain circumstances.
Congress' investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, hopes to match the names of those getting disability payments against a list of people who've been newly hired, a method of confirming whether healthy, gainfully employed people are receiving disability on top of their regular salary.
If that is the case, it would "certainly raise a huge red flag for fraud," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has asked for an investigation into the issue.
But the health department, which keeps employment records, has refused to turn them over because of legal concerns.
The records are part of a federal database known as the National Directory of New Hires. It is used to help child support agencies find delinquent parents and enforce court orders.
Citing privacy concerns, Congress has placed restrictions on who gets to see the database. Because the GAO is not mentioned in law as an authorized user, the department has concluded that it is unable to share the directory with investigators, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote in a letter last month to Collins.
Beyond holding back the records, the department has also told states not to comply with any request from congressional investigators for the same information, said Collins and two other senators who have intervened on the GAO's behalf.
They argue that the GAO has broad legal access to records needed to conduct oversight.
"This is ridiculous. We're trying to do oversight to solve a problem," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who is pushing for the investigation.
The impasse comes amid a growing debate over Obama's record on government transparency, a signature promise of his 2008 campaign.
Two years into his term, the record is uneven. Obama aides insist they've set new standards for open government by revealing the names of White House visitors. Last month, Obama collected an award from good-government advocates for making transparency an important goal. But in an ironic twist, the White House neither disclosed the event nor allowed reporters in, prompting a rebuke from one of the groups that presented the award.
One study, by the nonpartisan National Security Archive, found last month that nearly half of 90 different federal agencies had failed to meet Obama's directive to make changes in public information laws aimed at opening up government.
In the dispute between the department and the GAO, Collins, Coburn and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) sent a letter to Sebelius urging her to release the information. The three senators also asked her not to block states from cooperating with investigators' request for data.
"President Obama promised that his administration would be the 'most open and transparent ever,' " the senators wrote. "The American people deserve to see that promise kept. Withholding information from GAO, and directing that states do the same, undermines transparency and accountability that we know the president values."
Collins, in an interview, said the Obama administration's legal reasoning made no sense.
"HHS makes an absurd argument — that GAO is not an authorized user of the database because it's not specifically listed in the law," Collins said. "The reason this is an absurd argument is because if HHS is right, in every single law that we pass we would have to say, 'Oh, by the way, GAO has access to any data connected to this law.' "
A former general counsel to Health and Human Services, Thomas Barker, said the department probably had the better argument. When a similar issue came up during his tenure in President George W. Bush's administration, he said, the department withheld information from congressional investigators because the law did not expressly allow for them to have it.
Without the employment records, the GAO's investigation has been effectively blocked. That's not a familiar position for the office.
Since filing a lawsuit against then-Vice President Dick Cheney in 2002 over private meetings of his energy task force, GAO investigators have been able to resolve differences with the executive branch and move forward with investigations, a GAO official said in an interview.
But in a meeting with Senate staff this year, the GAO said it saw no way around the obstacle raised by the health department, according to people who were present. That didn't sit well with Senate aides at the meeting.
"Since the Cheney case we have either been able to work out our issues with the agencies or have found alternative means of doing the work," said Robert Cramer, general counsel for the GAO. "Here there's no alternative except going through the states, which HHS has cut off from us at this point."
Past investigations have uncovered fraud in federal disability programs, and all three senators have asked the GAO to look more deeply into the issue.
Last year, nearly 15 million people received federal disability benefits amounting to $153 billion under two programs run by the Social Security Administration.