Republicans turn subpoena power on Obama’s environmental agenda

Republicans turn subpoena power on Obama’s environmental agenda
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Republicans on the House Oversight Committee have turned their focus to the Obama administration’s environmental agenda. 

Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzThe myth of the conservative bestseller Elijah Cummings, Democratic chairman and powerful Trump critic, dies at 68 House Oversight panel demands DeVos turn over personal email records MORE (R-Utah) issued subpoenas to two Obama administration agencies this month, demanding information about the president’s delayed Keystone XL pipeline decision and deliberations leading to the release of a sweeping new water rule. 


The subpoenas come after Chaffetz vowed in February, shortly after taking the gavel of the investigative panel, to probe management problems and the pace of rule-making  at the Environmental Protection Agency. The subpoenas suggest Chaffetz’s focus has broadened to include the State Department and the White House itself.

“We gave these things, in the case of Keystone, months to percolate, and it gets to be a point of frustration when you see no movement or even a hint that they might be complying with the requests, then you have to ratchet it up and maybe that will get their attention,” he said.  

Throughout his administration, Obama’s aggressive push to institute new environmental regulations has generated relentless criticism from Republicans who have long sought to undo his administration’s policies — or, in the case of approving the Keystone project, force his hand. The subpoenas have opened a new chapter in the way congressional Republicans are working to stymie that agenda.

The new subpoenas stem from what Republicans view as foot-dragging or, at worst, open refusal from administration officials to respond to their requests for information. Chaffetz said environmental issues are an important topic for him, given the policies’ effect on Western states and his role as the first Mountain State chairman of the powerful Oversight panel.

“A Democratic administration, I guess that’s not too much of a surprise,” he said of Obama’s rule-making. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to investigate. If they’re going to turn up the volume of regulations, we have a right to see that information.”

Chaffetz’s committee has waded into a handful of cases of employee misconduct at the EPA since he took over this session. In some cases, he has been able to find a measure of common ground with committee Democrats, including ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

That bipartisanship may not extend as far when Chaffetz begins probing policy issues instead of staffing problems.

In a statement, Cummings said Chaffetz has been more “responsible” in issuing subpoenas than his predecessor, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). But he said “there are serious problems” with the renewed committee focus on the Keystone XL pipeline.

“The State Department has already said it would provide the requested documents after a final decision is made,” he said. “But until that time these are deliberative documents designed to inform a presidential decision based on his authority under the Constitution, so the agency has a strong case.”

Committee Republicans have twice asked the State Department to give it all “reports, recommendations, letters and comments” the agency is using to review the long-delayed pipeline project. 

The administration has steadfastly refused to release those documents while the review is underway. In a statement after the subpoena came out, State Department spokesman John Kirby said that “after a decision [on Keystone] is made, we will release the comments of the eight executive advising agencies.”

Chaffetz called that promise “hogwash” and said he hopes the subpoena puts more pressure on Obama to either consider the project or at least release documents that might explain the delays. 

Other Republicans agree.

“Under these subpoenas I am hopeful we can get the truth of what the motivation is for holding up a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline for over six years,” said Rep. Cynthia LummisCynthia Marie LummisCheney's decision not to run for Senate sparks Speaker chatter Liz Cheney decides against Senate bid in Wyoming Liz Cheney leads GOP field by 20 points in potential Wyoming Senate race: poll MORE (R-Wyo.), who chairs the Oversight subcommittee that oversees the Interior Department. “If the decision-making delays on the pipeline are justified then show the documents that prove it.”

The committee’s other subpoena centers on the information the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) used to review the EPA’s rule establishing regulatory power over smaller bodies of water.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), one of Chaffetz’s lieutenants on the Oversight Committee, said the subpoena could help Republicans restore balance between the Obama administration’s rule-making and Congress’s ability to write laws.

“I don’t see it as combating the Obama administration as much as it is really combating a rule-making process that is beyond the scope of what our founding fathers originally set out and really beyond the scope of the walls of separation between the executive branch and the legislative branch,” he said.

At a March hearing, Meadows asked OIRA Administrator Howard Shelanski to give the committee all communications between OIRA and the EPA to illustrate how the rule was developed. Shelanski declined, saying the communications were part of a “deliberative process” and Congress had no right to see them. 

Meadows said the subpoena could help fuel lawsuits against the rule, which is the main way opponents have tried combating Obama regulatory orders outside of the legislative process. He suspects the administration focused more on the legal justification for the rule than its economic impact.

“For us, there was a whole lot of impact from stakeholders across the ideological spectrum that talked about the financial impact,” he said. “There is great concern that some of that impact was either ignored or certainly not taken into the same consideration or given the same merit as some other impacts.”

Chaffetz said the committee’s work on environmental issues is just beginning. Beyond the subpoenas, he’s already scheduled another hearing on EPA management issues for next week. 

“You’re just seeing us now with all engines moving in the right direction,” he said. “There was a transition time, there was new staff; one-third of our committee on the Republican side are new freshman members. But now we’re fully engaged, the staff is up to speed, and you’re seeing a much more fully-functional committee.”