"Unprecedented" Issa Policy Prevents Oversight Democrats From Selecting Their Own Witnesses

June 03, 2011 11:39 am ET — Matt Gertz

A House Oversight subcommittee erupted in controversy this morning, with Democratic members objecting to what they called Rep. Darrell Issa's (R-CA) "unprecedented" demand that all Obama administration witnesses called by the majority be designated as minority witnesses, in lieu of allowing the members to select their own witnesses.

Oversight Committee ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and subcommittee ranking member Gerry Connolly (D-VA) savaged the new mandate as a violation of House rules and the rights of the minority, and urged the Obama administration to cease sending witnesses to appear at Oversight Committee hearings until the new rule is overturned.

The controversy began when Cummings made a parliamentary inquiry after two administration witnesses were sworn in for a hearing before the Subcommittee on Technology on project labor agreements. Cummings objected to the fact that rather than have the witness Democrats had chosen present to take questions, the majority had selected the administration witnesses on their behalf, and demanded to know how this was possible under House rules:

CUMMINGS: My staff has informed me that you, Chairman Issa, and other chairmen of this committee have adopted a new policy for minority witnesses. This policy appears to contradict the rules and precedent of our committee. We received word of this policy for the first time from Chairman Issa's staff in an email on May 25, and here is what it said: "If there is an administration witness, then that witness is designated minority witness. It is up to the chairman to accept an additional witness, but that witness must be recognized within the 24 hour period." In other words, if you invite someone from the administration, that witness is somehow designated as our witness although we didn't ask for him. For this hearing, we did not request an administration witness, you did. We requested Dr. Peter Phillips, an expert in economics of the construction industry. But you refused to allow him to testify, the reason your staff gave was Chairman Issa's new policy. They said we could not have our witness because you already invited administration witnesses. 

Cummings went on to say that the policy sets a "dangerous precedent" because "quite often, we are opposed to what the administration is doing." Watch:

Cummings went on to submit for a record a letter to Issa from all the ranking members of the committee demanding that the policy be rescinded.

Once questioning began, Connolly asked the administration witnesses, Office of Federal Procurement Policy administrator Daniel Gordon and General Services Administration deputy administrator Susan Brita, whether they had had any contact with his office prior to the hearing. When they said that they had not, he urged them to instruct the administration not to send any more witnesses to Oversight Committee hearings until Issa's policy had been removed. Cummings went on to agree with Connolly's statements.

From the hearing:

CONNOLLY: Let me just add again, sadly, you're both being used in violation of House Rule 11, Clause J1, which states explicitly, "the minority members of the committee shall be entitled upon request to the chair by a minority of them before the completion of the hearing to call witnesses selected by them to testify with respect to that measure or matter." To my knowledge, it's never been customary in the House or the Senate for the majority to determine who the minority witnesses are, let alone to determine on their behalf. ... I'm going to advise the administration to deny all requests by the majority to testify before this committee and the full committee until this matter is resolved. ...

I hope you both will take that back to your respective agencies, I am going to be talking to the White House and to the administration government relations officials and I hope the administration will cooperate with us in a policy of noncooperation until this matter is cleared up. But the minority has rights, and if the majority wishes to actually join on this issue and dare to tell us who our witnesses will be, and to designate administration witnesses as our witnesses against our wishes, then we're going to advise that administration to not cooperate with the members of the majority until our rights are recognized and respected. And with that I yield to the ranking minority member of the full committee.

CUMMINGS: I want to associate—I thank the gentleman for yielding. I want to associate myself with every syllable of the words of Mr. Connolly.