The Spectacle Blog

Darrell Issa, Subpoenas, and Political Theater

By on 7.16.14 | 4:06PM

Congressman Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, issued a subpoena to White House senior adviser David Simas, compelling him to testify at a Wednesday morning hearing exhaustively titled, “White House Office of Political Affairs: Is Supporting Candidates and Campaign Fund-Raising an Appropriate Use of a Government Office?”

White House counsel Neil Eggleston pushed back against the subpoena in a letter, describing it as a violation of the separation of powers, as it “threatens longstanding interests of the executive branch in preserving the president’s independence and autonomy, as well as his ability to obtain candid advice and counsel to aid him in the discharge of his duties,” the Washington Post reported. Issa insisted the subpoena remain in place.

Wednesday morning, while opening the committee hearing, Chairman Issa seemed baffled and indignant to see that the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach (OPSO), President Obama’s rebooted White House Office of Political Affairs, had stuck to its plan and Simas was absent.

In his opening statement, he said that Hatch Act violations by members of the president’s campaign, and the fact that “Hatch Act violations have been a problem for all administrations,” meant that the Oversight Committee did not need a smoking gun, or real evidence of misappropriations or abuse on the part of OPSO, to compel Simas to give testimony. Issa made it clear he considered the committee’s ability to monitor the activities of the White House political affairs office an important part of checks and balances.

The ranking member, Congressman Elijah Cummings, responded with an ardent condemnation of Issa’s actions, citing Issa’s record number of subpoenas issued. He said Issa needed to be reminded that “if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go with others together,” and that Issa’s failure to consult other members before issuing subpoenas endangered their effectiveness. He said, “It is time for this committee to stop serving as center stage for political theater.” And finally he concluded, “I end by saying this is our watch; I end by saying we are better than this.”

Issa promptly recessed the committee, declaring them unable to go forward without Simas present to testify.

The question, then, is what exactly is the role of the congressional subpoena? Issa seems to be up to arguing that the legislative branch, especially the Oversight Committee, has a right to all the information the executive branch has when it comes to taxpayer money. Eggleston and the executive’s legal office seem to be of the opinion that oversight and the subpoena is a reactive measure, requiring evidence of illegal or unethical practices to warrant action.

Whatever shape oversight ought to take, it’s clear that both Issa and OPSO are more than happy to make this political theater. However, considering Lois Lerner and the IRS debacle, no one should be surprised that this administration doesn’t take subpoenas and compulsions of testimony seriously.

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