Republicans threaten reprisals as House Democratic chairman gets subpoena power

By Anthony Adragna

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee gave Chairman Raúl Grijalva unilateral power Wednesday to subpoena documents from the Interior Department and other agencies — prompting Republicans to vow payback.

Grijalva told reporters he plans to begin issuing document demands next week, following what Democrats call a long pattern of the Trump administration's refusal to comply with congressional oversight.

“After more than a year of stonewalling and smokescreens, I would be failing my responsibility as chair if I did not seek this authority,” the Arizona Democrat said before the resolution passed on a party-line vote of 21 to 15. “I do not intend to surprise nor harass anybody. I intend for this committee to do its job.”

Grijalva said the first subpoenas will be about a canceled study on the health effects of mountaintop removal mining; Interior reorganization efforts, including the relocation of the department's Bureau of Land Management to Colorado; and the decision to downsize two national monuments in Utah.

But Interior Secretary David Bernhardt denounced the move, and other Republicans said they may well wield the same tactics against Democrats the next time the GOP regains the majority.

"Today's action by the House Natural Resources Committee demonstrates they won't let the facts stand in the way of their rhetoric," Bernhardt said in a tweet. "Going forward, the Department will take today's action into account for every decision it makes to deal with this committee. Godspeed with the witch hunt."

Bernhardt said the department has already given 21,935 documents comprising 204,709 pages to the committee. Democrats have described many of those as publicly available and non-responsive.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) said Democrats may come to regret Wednesday's action.

“A year from now you may be facing a Republican chairman using this new authority to issue subpoenas without consulting you and you may find subpoenas being issued to every left-wing NGO, every green energy crony capitalist, every ideological zealot in the bureaucracy with no opportunity for you to question or protest,” McClintock said. “I can’t say I find that prospect altogether unappealing.”

The GOP blowback echoed President Donald Trump's continued broadsides against his just-concluded impeachment trial, which he's denounced as a "witch hunt." That trial followed an investigation in which nine current or former administration officials refused to comply with congressional subpoenas. Court battles over subpoena power continue with a federal appeals court expected to shortly rule on a House subpoena for former White House counsel Don McGahn’s testimony.

An Interior spokesperson said Bernhardt's "statement speaks for itself" when asked if it meant the Department would ignore Grijalva's subpoenas.

Republicans objected that allowing Grijalva unilateral authority would cut them out of the process and said subpoenas should receive full committee votes, as they did several times during the Obama administration.

“This is a bad idea,” Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), a former committee chairman, said. “You will divide this committee. We won’t accomplish what we seek. And we do not do our duty to the country nor the people which you represent.”

Before passing the subpoena resolution, the committee adopted two Republican amendments. One requires that Grijalva give members seven-days' notice before issuing a subpoena and that he put it to a vote of the full committee if a majority of members request one. Another amendment allows subpoena recipients to apply for attorneys' fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act.

The committee rejected an amendment from Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) that would bar the use of subpoenas on private citizens. Grijalva said he has no plans to subpoena private citizens, but that allowing the amendment would create an incentive for officials to leave the administration to shield themselves from subpoenas. It also rejected an amendment from Rep. Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho) that would have canceled out the chairman’s unilateral power

Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), a senior member of the committee eyed as a potential defector over his close ties to California agriculture, voiced support for the proposal though noted he might oppose requests on a case-by-case basis.

“This proposal here is an opportunity here to try to further good oversight where we have difficulty obtaining information that is deemed important to have,” Costa said. “I think it’s well-thought-out. I think there are guardrails.”

Granting Grijalva subpoena power comes as the committee says it has received complete or nearly complete responses to just three of its 25 oversight requests to date this Congress. Under the resolution, the chairman could subpoena the Interior Department, Commerce Department, Agriculture Department, Council on Environmental Quality and Office of Management and Budget.

Former Republican Chairman Doc Hastings of Washington state issued several subpoenas during the Obama administration for records related to a report used as justification to initiate a deepwater oil drilling ban; the stream buffer rule on coal mining; and other issues. Those subpoenas followed full committee votes to authorize them.