WASHINGTON -- Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) went on a subpoena-issuing bonanza during his four years as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Other Republicans appear ready to follow his lead.
House Republicans are quietly moving to give unilateral subpoena authority to at least seven committee chairmen, a shift from longstanding rules that have required a full committee vote to issue a subpoena. The change would allow GOP chairmen to issue subpoenas without input from Democrats, letting them challenge nearly all of President Barack Obama's signature accomplishments, including the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, immigration reform and environmental protections.
Congressional committees have the ability to issue subpoenas to compel witness testimony or to obtain documents. But until recently, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee was the only committee where a chairman unilaterally issued subpoenas. Now, as more chairmen have begun signing up for unilateral subpoena authority, Democrats fear that Republicans plan to bury agencies in congressional requests for information so they can’t get their work done.
"Get ready for 2 yrs of re-litigating everything!" a Democratic staffer on the House Rules Committee said in an email.
The Energy and Commerce and Financial Services Committees have already voted this month to give their chairman unilateral subpoena authority. At least five more are expected to do so in the coming days: Oversight and Government Reform, Judiciary, Homeland Security, Agriculture, and Science, Space and Technology. Aside from Oversight, these committees are giving their chairmen this authority for the first time.
In the last Congress, Republicans gave unilateral subpoena authority to five other committee chairs, but they never used it. The difference now is that the chairmen who are likely to receive this authority oversee the bulk of Obama's priorities. Judiciary, for example, has jurisdiction over immigration matters. Energy and Commerce has oversight of health care reform.
Each committee is changing its rules in slightly different ways. The Judiciary Committee, which is voting Wednesday, will change its rules to require the chairman to consult with the ranking Democrat before issuing a subpoena, but not to get consent. The Homeland Security Committee, which is also voting Wednesday, plans to give the chairman the authority to issue subpoenas without consulting the ranking Democrat.
Doug Andres, a spokesman for the House Rules Committee, emphasized that this subpoena power was always available to committees under the House rules.
"Many committees are now exercising this power because of the unprecedented stonewalling from the Obama Administration," he said in an email.
When chairmen of the Oversight Committee have used unilateral subpoena power in the past, they mostly ended up embarrassed.
Issa issued dozens of subpoenas as part of his probes into the 2012 Benghazi attack and the 2013 Internal Revenue Service scandal. But his investigations became increasingly political, while short on substance. His IRS probe found that conservative groups were only targeted for scrutiny as a result of mismanagement, not due to criminal activity. After Issa tried for months to prove that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was responsible for management failures that led to the Benghazi attack, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) yanked the probe from him and gave it to another committee.
In another investigation into the White House's political strategy and outreach activities, which found no wrongdoing, Issa conceded that his hearings may simply be "good theater."
Issa's predecessor, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), issued more than 1,000 subpoenas between 1997 and 2002 for his investigations into the Clinton administration. But his vow to expose the administration for trading national security secrets for campaign contributions -- something he said would be "one of the biggest scandals in the history of the United States" if true -- went nowhere. And he had to apologize to Republicans after his top aide resigned for his role in editing tapes of jailhouse conversations used as the basis for an inquiry into former President Bill Clinton's 1996 campaign finance practices.
The five chairmen who received unilateral subpoena authority in the last Congress but never used it were on the Ways and Means, Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, Transportation and Infrastructure, and Education and the Workforce Committees. They, too, may renew that authority in this Congress. If they all do, it would bring the total number of committee chairs with unilateral subpoena authority to 12.
Boehner did not immediately return a request for comment on why it is important for chairmen to have unilateral subpoena authority.
“The Republican playbook is clear: obstruct, distract, subpoena, repeat," said a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "This change will inevitably to widespread abuses of power as Republicans infect the other committees with the poisonous process that Issa has so abused during his chairmanship.”