The House’s new top watchdog is promising a more bipartisan approach to keeping tabs on the Obama administration — but he won’t relinquish his unilateral subpoena power.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, kicked off the panel’s first meeting of the 114th Congress yesterday by pledging to work with his colleagues across the aisle, signaling that he hopes to soften the partisan animosity that’s engulfed the committee in recent years.
"I think it’s important as we do tackle tough, contentious issues … that it not become too personal," he said. "We’re going to disagree … but how we do it matters."
Chaffetz added, "I’m hopeful that we can work together more than we can work independently." He said he’s informed the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, that he has no plans "to operate in a way that would exclude the minority."
But Chaffetz insisted on maintaining his unilateral powers to subpoena witnesses, sparking the panel’s first public fight of the year.
"It is important … that the chairman retain the ability to issue a subpoena when necessary," Chaffetz said as Democrats on the panel derided the practice. "Ideally, the administration and others would be forthcoming and transparent in response to our requests. … But in cases when it isn’t, a subpoena may be needed."
Chaffetz said he doesn’t intend to issue subpoenas that are unjustified or unnecessary and plans to give Cummings a reasonable amount of notice before subpoenas are issued.
Democrats on the panel have accused former Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) of being heavy-handed in recent years when it came to issuing subpoenas. They urged the committee yesterday to change tactics by requiring the consent of the ranking member or a committee vote before issuing a subpoena.
With several other House committees moving to allow chairmen to issue unilateral subpoenas this Congress, "It seems to me that the Republican leadership is doubling down on the Issa model," said Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.). "They are Issa-tizing the House, and it’s exactly the wrong decision, based on the abuses we have witnessed firsthand in this committee over the last four years."
The committee’s Republican majority defeated efforts to water down Chaffetz’s subpoena authority and easily cleared the draft rules despite Democratic opposition.
As the watchdog committee got organized yesterday, several Democrats said they hoped Chaffetz would succeed in changing the panel’s tone.
"The chairman has stated publicly that he wants to run the committee differently than his predecessor, and both Democrats and Republicans welcome this news," said Cummings, who frequently sparred publicly with Issa.
"The last four years were filled with acrimony, partisanship and sometimes vulgar displays," Cummings added. "They were a stain on this committee’s integrity and an embarrassment to the House of Representatives. It is my sincere hope that we can leave this tainted legacy behind and work together in a collaborative manner to address the serious challenges our nation faces."
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said he appreciated Chaffetz’s approach. "I honestly think a lot of damage was done to the institution of this committee in the last four years. Restoring civility and respect for each other, I think, is an absolute essential in our doing our work."
Ranking members announced
Cummings today announced the top Democrats to serve on the watchdog panel’s subcommittees.
Rep. Brenda Lawrence, a freshman lawmaker from Michigan, is the top Democrat on the new Interior Subcommittee charged with overseeing U.S. EPA and the departments of Interior, Energy and Agriculture. She’ll be working across from subpanel Chairwoman Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.).
Connolly is the ranking member on the Subcommittee on Government Operations that’s led by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth is the top Democrat on the Subcommittee on Transportation and Public Assets; that subpanel is led by Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.).
The top Democrat on the Subcommittee on National Security is Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts; Florida Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis is chairman. Pennsylvania Rep. Matt Cartwright will be the top Democrat on the Subcommittee on Health Care, Benefits and Administrative Rules, working with Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). And Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) will be the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Information Technology led by Rep. William Hurd (R-Texas).
Regulatory reform, agency review bills
As one of its first matters of business this year, the committee voted 20-13 yesterday to approve legislation aimed at forcing agencies to provide more information about the costs of regulations.
A version of H.R. 50, the "Unfunded Mandates Information and Transparency Act," passed the House last year but didn’t get anywhere in the then-Democratic-controlled Senate. The White House last year threatened to veto the bill (Greenwire, Feb. 28, 2014).
The bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), reintroduced the measure this year. Among other things, it would expand the definition of "direct costs" imposed by federal rules and update requirements for agencies to assess the effects of rules on state, local and tribal governments and businesses.
Supporters say the bill would ensure that agencies are taking into account the entire costs of federal rules, while critics have said it would add unnecessary procedural steps to rulemaking.
Separately, Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) reintroduced a bill in the House this week that would overhaul federal agency programs.
H.R. 522, the "Commission on the Accountability and Review of Federal Agencies Act," would establish a commission to review federal agencies and their programs over six years. The commission would then recommend the elimination or realignment of programs deemed to be duplicative, wasteful or outdated.