Cravaack, Oberstar spar over file shredding

Chip Cravaack
U.S. Rep.-elect Chip Cravaack is upset that outgoing Rep. Jim Oberstar's staff is shredding requests from constituents that have not yet been resolved, rather than handing them over to him. The practice is quite common, though, for outgoing members of Congress.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

Constituents' files are the latest point of conflict in the handoff of power between outgoing 8th District U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar and his successor, Republican Chip Cravaack. Oberstar's office is destroying most of the files on individuals request's for assistance. But Cravaack's team says Oberstar should hand them over, not shred them.

The files are casework concerning people who came to Rep. Oberstar for help with federal issues. A typical case might involve someone seeking disability status after getting rejected under medicare or veterans programs. Any member of Congress could have hundreds of open cases at a time.

Oberstar staffers say they're shredding most of the files on open cases, and they've sent letters advising people to re-file with either Cravaack or other members of the state's Congressional delegation. If the constituent gave explicit permission, the files could be saved and handed to the representative of a citizen's choosing.

Oberstar aide John Schadl says the cases are not routinely going to Cravaack.

"We cannot and will not arbitrarily pass case work data on to another office without permission of the individual that we are helping," said Schadl. "That information, which is very personal and very sensitive, needs to be destroyed, so it does not fall into the wrong hands."

Schadl added that the office did send a few cases on to U.S. Sen. Al Franken, with the permission of the people that filed the requests.

"There is no love lost between Oberstar and Cravaack. ... But I'd be stunned if Oberstar did anything that would hurt his constituents."

Schadl said there was no time to reach out personally to each individual, so, short of a written direction, most files are being shredded.

Minnesota Public Radio attempted to contact Cravaack, but neither he nor any staff member has replied.

Cravaack told the Minneapolis Star Tribune Oberstar should turn the files over to him. Otherwise, he said, people seeking help now have to go back to square one.

"Congressman Oberstar's office couldn't just hand over those files. They would have to seek permission to do that," said Minnesota's other U.S. Sen., Amy Klobuchar.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar recalls taking over some work for Republican Sen. Norm Coleman during the 2008 recount. But Coleman didn't just hand over his files, either.

"You think, 'Why couldn't Norm just give a bunch of files to me, because you're helping the people of Minnesota?' Well they have privacy concerns. You actually have to write them and get permission from them to give them to someone else," said Klobuchar.

Norm Ornstein, resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, says every member of Congress handles the files differently.

"Sometimes, especially if you get a transfer within the party, members will talk to each other and they'll move the files," said Ornstein. "But even there, there's some sensitivity attached there. Sometimes these casework files can involve issues that the people ... don't want shared with a lot of people, or don't want shared at all."

Ornstein added that it's common to do what Oberstar is doing.

Much has been made of the distance between Oberstar and Cravaack. Oberstar has never called to congratulate Cravaack, and the two haven't met since the election.

But Ornstein says the file shredding doesn't demonstrate an unwillingness to help the transfer of power.

"I am quite sure that there is no love lost between Oberstar and Cravaack. And, I'm quite sure that the nature of the campaign is such that Oberstar is not going to go out of his way to help Cravaack. But I'd be stunned if Oberstar did anything that would hurt his constituents," he said.

Cravaack's defeat of Oberstar put a spotlight on the changing demographics and politics of the longtime DFL stronghold in the 8th district. But the transition spat shows the 8th's tradition of bare-knuckled politics hasn't died.

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