Oversight panel bickers over subpoenas

The House Oversight committee got off to a contentious start Tuesday morning as its organization meeting devolved into partisan sniping and accusations of hypocrisy.

Chairman Darell Issa (R-Calif.) has pledged to aggressively investigate the Obama administration and ferret out waste, fraud and abuse, and Democrats are deeply concerned that the probes could turn into witch-hunts aimed at embarrassing President Obama rather than ensuring efficient and ethical government operations.

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Democrats and Republicans have been arguing about the issue for days leading up to the committee's first meeting. Their tension was on full display Tuesday as Republicans rejected a proposal by Rep. Elijiah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, that would have forced Issa to consult with him and the full committee and reach an agreement on any subpoenas the panel issues.

“It’s been the approach of all chairmen going back to the McCarthy era [to reach an agreement with the minority before sending outsubpoenas],” Cummings said.
 
The only time the practice was suspended was during the chairmanship of Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) from 1997 to 2002, Cummings said. Burton sent out more than 1,000 unilateral subpoenas and was known for multiple investigations of the Clinton administration, including the suicide of top White House aide Vince Foster.

“As widely reported, this practice led to serious abuses,” Cummings said.

Burton, who still sits on the panel, interjected that he had actually sent out 1,200 subpoenas, not 1,000.

Issa came to Burton’s defense, arguing that different times call for different measures and reminding the committee that President Lincoln had suspended the write of habeas corpus during the civil war.

Issa said the committee rules have never required the majority to consult with the minority or win full committee approval for subpoenas before issuing them. Instead, he said, it was the panel’s common practice to consult with the minority even though there have been exceptions over the years. Issa said he would generally continue the practice of consulting with the minority but would exercise his right to issue subpoenas unilaterally in some situations, such as when time elements require it and Congress is in recess.

He also asked why Democrats had not sought these rules change during the previous two Congresses when they controlled the majority.

Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla) angrily accused Democrats of hypocrisy for asking for a rules change now even though they didn’t seek one when they were in the majority.

“We’re arguing about the amendment from the minority side…they want to amend the rules—a rule that was their rule last Congress,” he said.

“This is the same exact rule and now that they are in the minority they want to change it?

Democrats argued that the chairmen and ranking members at the time had given verbal assurances that they would consult and reach agreements with the minority on issuing the subpoenas and Issa had yet to echo these same assurances.

“I think it’s a little bit unfortunate that on the first day [of the committee in the new Congress] we’re hearing charges of hypocrisy,” he said. “…and I hope we don’t go there…”

In the past, Tierney said, Democrats would not have needed to seek an amendment because chairmen had given assurances that they would be as inclusive as possible.

“We would not have needed to seek an amendment because we would have taken the chairman at his word…in the past,” Tierney said.