WASHINGTON – U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Subcommittee on Environment Chairman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) today sent a letter to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Acting Secretary Eric Hargan requesting documents related to a recent editorial published by an executive branch employee that may violate the Anti-Lobbying Act.

The chairmen also sent a letter to HHS Inspector General Daniel Levinson requesting he investigate the matter. The editorial, “Regulating toxic chemicals for public and environmental health,” was written by National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Director Linda Birnbaum and published by the Public Library of Science (PLOS). In the editorial, Birnbaum encourages citizens to petition government officials to support certain policies over others.

The letters read in part:

The Anti-Lobbying Act forbids executive branch employees to lobby Congress using federal dollars. In 1989, the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) within the U.S. Department of Justice issued guidelines to help the Attorney General and executive branch agencies understand what actions are prohibited under the Act. According to the guidelines, the Act is meant to apply to “grass roots” lobbying “designed to encourage members of the public to pressure Members of Congress” on legislative matters. Specifically, “grass roots” was interpreted to mean “communications by executive officials directed to members of the public at large, or particular segments of the general public, intended to persuade them in turn to communicate with their elected representatives on some issue of concern to the executive.”

The Committee is concerned that Birnbaum’s role as an author in the PLOS editorial may go against the Anti-Lobbying Act and the interpretation guidelines issued by OLC and HHS. The editorial states that “closing the gap between evidence and policy will require that engaged citizens, both scientists and nonscientists, work to ensure our government officials pass health-protective policies[.]”

Birnbaum, an executive branch employee, urges citizens to reach out to government officials, or members of Congress, to push the agenda laid out in this and the other editorials in the series. This communication does exactly what the Anti-Lobbying Act prohibits: it targets the general public to persuade citizens to communicate certain issues to elected representatives. 

The letters can be found here.

NIEHS is a research institute within HHS. The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has jurisdiction over environmental and scientific programs.