/House Dem leaders to give chairmen broad power to enforce subpoenas

House Dem leaders to give chairmen broad power to enforce subpoenas

Jerry Nadler

Democrats like Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler have indicated that empowering committees to take their fights to court could help force witness testimony and documents. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

House Democratic leaders are preparing to grant sweeping authority to committee chairs to sue the Trump administration over its refusal to comply with congressional demands for information — from President Donald Trump’s tax returns to former special counsel Robert Mueller’s underlying files.

The draft resolution, which the House will consider on Tuesday, formally holds Attorney General William Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn in contempt of Congress for defying House Judiciary Committee subpoenas seeking Mueller’s unredacted report, its underlying evidence, and additional witness testimony.

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But the most dramatic proposal will empower the chairs of all House committees to initiate legal action each time a witness or administration official defies a committee subpoena, a move to streamline and speed up the House’s ability to respond to a mounting list of confrontations with the White House.

Under the proposal, committee chairs seeking to enforce its subpoenas in federal court would still be required to obtain the approval of a bipartisan — but Democrat-controlled — panel of House leaders that includes Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise.

The resolution can also apply to subpoenas that have not yet been issued. Committee leaders will have the authority to enforce those subpoenas without requiring the full House to vote on each one. Democrats emphasize that the reason for the wholesale change is to prevent contempt citations from dominating House’s limited floor time.

“There’s a concern that there could be a lot of floor time eaten up if we handle these one at a time,” said a Democratic congressional aide. “We are carefully prioritizing the fights we choose to elevate to this level.”

The move is a reflection of rising frustration among Democrats, who have been largely stymied in their efforts to investigate Mueller’s findings because of roadblocks thrown up by the Trump White House. Though the stonewalling has led some Democrats to demand impeachment proceedings, Democrats like Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler have indicated that empowering committees to take their fights to court could help force witness testimony and the production of key documents.

“We are re-affirming the power of the committees to get subpoenas in response to what’s really an unprecedented intent to prevent a co-equal branch of government from doing its constitutional duties,” said another Democratic aide.

Additionally, the resolution empowers House General Counsel Douglas Letter to use outside attorneys to assist House Democrats in federal court. The House Rules Committee will review and potentially revise the resolution on Monday.

Tuesday’s full House vote will mark House Democrats’ most dramatic effort to date to enforce its subpoenas for documents and witness testimony that Trump has sought to block.

The Judiciary Committee held Barr in contempt last month after he refused to provide the committee with Mueller’s complete report and underlying evidence. The committee subsequently subpoenaed McGahn — one of Mueller’s central witnesses — after he acquiesced to a White House directive that he decline to testify.

House Democrats have already secured two key victories in federal court after Trump sought to invalidate their subpoenas seeking his personal and business financial records. Trump, who filed lawsuits challenging the subpoenas in his personal capacity, has appealed those rulings.

But House Democrats have yet to engage directly with the White House in their lawsuits. Tuesday’s vote will give them that sweeping authority.

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