House passes bill to strengthen congressional subpoena enforcement
© Greg Nash

The House easily passed legislation on Monday to enhance congressional committees’ subpoena powers for investigations.

Lawmakers gave voice-vote approval to the measure authored by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a former chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Under the bill, House and Senate committees would be allowed to seek expedited court review by a three-judge district court panel if a witness refuses to comply with a subpoena, with direct appeal to the Supreme Court.

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In cases involving government agencies, the court would be allowed to impose monetary penalties on agency heads that willfully fail to comply with congressional subpoenas. Agencies would not be permitted to use taxpayer funds to pay for such penalties.

Issa cited the Obama Justice Department’s unwillingness to provide documents during his tenure as Oversight Committee chairman, as well as Rep. John ConyersJohn James ConyersHouse to hold first hearing on slavery reparations in over a decade House to hold first hearing on slavery reparations in over a decade Reparations: The 'lost cause' of black politics? MORE Jr.’s (D-Mich.) experience with the George W. Bush administration while leading the House Judiciary Committee, as examples of both parties at times declining to cooperate with the legislative branch.

He noted that both parties have tried to take advantage of partisan rivalries while in control of the executive branch.

“This legislation is designed to reduce that, to reduce the ability for the executive branch or other outside groups to, if you will, take advantage of the natural division between the two of us,” Issa said during House floor debate.

Congress currently has the ability to hold people in contempt if they do not comply with subpoenas. Lawmakers can also turn to the courts to enforce a congressional subpoena.

Issa himself led the efforts to hold former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderCongress and contempt: What you need to know Congress and contempt: What you need to know The Hill's Morning Report - Democrats wonder: Can Nadler handle the Trump probe? MORE and ex-IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress while he served as Oversight Committee chairman, a post he relinquished at the end of 2014 due to term limits.

The House votes allowed a referral of contempt charges to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia.

Issa had sought documents from the Justice Department regarding its “Fast and Furious” operation that allowed about 2,000 guns into Mexico so that authorities could trace them to drug cartels. Two guns linked to the operation were found at the scene of a border patrol agent’s death.

Then-President Obama invoked executive privilege so that the Justice Department wouldn’t have to provide the documents requested by Issa. The 2012 House vote declaring Holder in contempt was the first contempt vote of a sitting attorney general.

The House voted two years later to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about the IRS scrutiny of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

Neither contempt case, however, resulted in convictions.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, noted that full subpoena power will be relevant for the congressional committees conducting investigations of Russia's role in the 2016 presidential election.

"Given some of our current challenges, it is more important than ever for the House to conduct substantive oversight of the executive branch. This bill contributes to that effort," Nadler said.