Political Correction

Rep. Cummings Urges Rep. Issa To Renounce Oversight Practices Used During Clinton Witch Hunts

January 24, 2011 5:16 pm ET - by Matt Gertz

In a sustained media campaign over the past several months, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) has insisted that he will not use his position as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to conduct witch hunts of the Obama administration. Issa has said that oversight "should not be used as a political weapon against the occupant of the Oval Office, and even insisted that his "job is to make the President a success."

But in an open letter to Issa released this afternoon, Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) takes Issa to task for planning to return the committee to a series of practices last used during "an era of the Committee's history when it was criticized for abusive practices."

Cummings specifically calls out Issa for stating that he plans to issue "unilateral subpoenas" on his own authority, without either seeking the consent of the ranking minority member or a committee vote. According to Cummings, such subpoenas had previously been issued only during the chairmanship of Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN), who was notorious for using the committee as a cudgel to attack President Clinton. Cummings writes:

Under the House and Committee Rules, the Chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee has the authority to issue unilateral subpoenas. The historical practice of all but one of your predecessors, however, has been to refrain from issuing subpoenas unilaterally.

Recognizing that the subpoena power is one of the most coercive powers of Congress, the policy of both Republican and Democratic Chairmen alike has been to obtain (1) the concurrence of the Ranking Minority Member or (2) a Committee vote.

The major exception to this practice was Rep. Dan Burton, who served as Chairman from 1997 to 2002. He issued more than 1,000 subpoenas during the Clinton Administration without seeking minority concurrence or a Committee vote. These included unilateral subpoenas to dozens of high-level White House officials, including three former White House Chiefs of Staff and four former White House Counsels. They also included at least three unilateral subpoenas issued to the wrong individuals. As a result of these and other abuses, the Committee was criticized repeatedly, at one point being referred to as "its own cartoon, a joke, and a deserved embarrassment.

Cummings says that Republican former Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), who succeeded Burton, as well as Democrats Henry Waxman (MA) and Ed Towns (NY), who served in that position after the Democrats took control of the House, all eschewed such tactics. Cummings writes that by contrast:

To continue this responsible, bipartisan approach, I asked you to engage in the same colloquy as Rep. Davis and Rep. Waxman did in 2007, but you declined to do so. In explaining your decision, you stated that you plan to exercise your authority more expansively by issuing subpoenas unilaterally, and you stated that you would not bring any subpoenas before the Committee for a vote.

In addition to defying precedent, Issa's reported plans also fly in the face of his October comments with respect to his oversight power: "I don't expect to use it often... I don't expect to use it lightly."

Cummings also criticizes Issa for refusing to grant minority staff access to documents obtained by majority staff, effectively keeping the Committee's Democrats in the dark. He concludes that unless Issa relents on these points, he will be unable to support the Committee's rules package when it is submitted for adoption tomorrow.

As Cummings notes, this is a "watershed moment" in Issa's chairmanship. His response may tell us whether there are melons in the Committee's future.

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