Physicist Congressman Leads Push to Revoke House Committee Chairs’ Unilateral Subpoena Authority

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Publication date: 
18 October 2016
Number: 
132

Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), Congress’s only physicist member, is leading a group of 38 House Democrats in asking the House Rules Committee to withdraw a recent rule change that permitted House committees to delegate their subpoena authority to their chairs. Among their objections, critics of this unilateral authority argue it is being used to harass scientific researchers.

Rep. Bill FosterOn Oct. 4, Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), pictured right, sent a letter signed by himself and 37 other House Democrats to the House Rules Committee, asking that it revoke the authority of committee chairs to issue unilateral subpoenas. The letter was in response to a Rules Committee request for comments on changes it might make to standing rules at the beginning of the next Congress in January.

Criticism of unilateral subpoenas has been mounting since January 2015, when House Republicans amended House rules, permitting committees to delegate their subpoena authority to their chairs. Doing so allows the chairs to avoid engaging the committee’s minority party members on potential subpoenas and alleviates majority committee members from having to vote on controversial ones. By removing procedural hurdles, it also increases the ease with which committees can issue subpoenas. The letter observes that unilateral subpoena authority has substantially increased the number of subpoenas issued, which, it argues, is a sign of rising abuse of congressional subpoena power.

Some of the greatest controversies surrounding unilateral subpoenas have related to subpoenas that broadly concern science, technology, health, and the environment. Notably, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who chairs the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, has targeted the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as state attorneys general and advocacy groups currently involved in state fraud investigations of ExxonMobil relating to climate change. Using his committee’s jurisdiction over cybersecurity, Smith has also issued subpoenas concerning the private email server that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton used when she was Secretary of State.

While Smith argues that the subpoenas serve the committee’s legitimate legislative and oversight functions, committee Democrats and others have objected that he is inappropriately using subpoenas to advance a nakedly political agenda. Smith’s subpoena of NOAA has drawn Democratic committee members’ particular scorn because, they argue, it infringes on the political independence of government research by seeking internal correspondence relating to a paper on global warming trends that NOAA scientists published in Nature (see FYI 2015 #141 and 2016 #58).

In a statement accompanying the Oct. 4 letter, Foster—who is a member of the Science Committee and was a project leader at Fermilab prior to entering Congress—remarked:

It is clear that unilateral subpoena power is being used to harass scientists and researchers and as a weapon against those expressing views that the committee chairs may disagree with. Congress needs to take action to prevent further abuses and change this rule.

In signing the letter, Foster is joined by 11 of the 15 other Democratic members of the Science Committee, including Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX). On Oct. 17, the committee Democrats released a list of Smith’s 25 unilateral subpoenas to date, and they have posted a clock on the committee minority’s website that counts how long it has been since Smith last issued one.

The letter is also signed by five of the six Democratic members of a Select Committee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee set up to investigate Planned Parenthood. This past February, the Democratic panel members objected that subpoenas issued unilaterally by panel chair Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) to three organizations sought the names of employees, putting those employees in danger of violence from anti-abortion extremists. The Oct. 4 letter claims these subpoenas were issued “to harass and endanger researchers, patients, and providers.”

The letter points out that the House Committees on Appropriations, Intelligence, Armed Services, and Veterans’ Affairs have not delegated subpoena authority to their chairs, and asserts that unilateral subpoena authority “is not a partisan issue.” To date, no Republican has expressed interest in walking back the rule changes the House implemented almost two years ago. However, the issue could certainly find its way onto the Rules Committee’s agenda should the Democrats recapture the House in the upcoming election.

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