Two members of Congress active in whistleblower protection issues are pushing HHS for an explanation of a recent memo to employees there telling them to consult with legislative affairs personnel prior to communicating with Congress.

“Federal employees will most certainly read this instruction as a prohibition against direct communications with Congress without permission. As such, it is potentially illegal and unconstitutional, and will likely chill protected disclosures of waste, fraud, and abuse,” said a letter to HHS Secretary Thomas Price from Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.

While the memo refers to “long-standing policy regarding congressional relations,” it fails to recognize that federal employees “have a constitutional right to communicate directly with Congress and petition the government for a redress of grievances,” they wrote.

Language in annual appropriations bills bars paying salaries of officials who attempt to interfere with that right, and the right was reaffirmed in the 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, they wrote.

Although the memo “does not ultimately prohibit all direct communication from employees, it forces employees to expose their communications with Congress to agency management, necessarily subjecting them to a significantly increased risk of reprisal. The effect will be to substantially chill those communications,” they said.

They asked for a justification behind the memo and requested that HHS issue new guidance telling employees of their right to communicate with Congress, including whistleblower protections that apply and a promise not to retaliate against any employee who exercises that right.