Obscure rule aids Democrats in getting information from agencies

House Government Reform ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has long been known as a dogged investigator of what he sees as governmental abuses of power, and he has become an avid and vocal critic of the Bush administration.

Since President Bush took office, however, Waxman increasingly has employed another tool in his arsenal -- the "seven member rule."

An obscure provision of a 1928 law, the rule states that if any seven members of the House Government Reform Committee -- or its predecessor, the Government Operations Committee -- collectively request information from an agency under the committee's oversight, the agency must turn the information over. In 70 years, the provision had been applied only sporadically, but Waxman has invoked the rule six times since 1998 -- three times in the past year alone.

Waxman said he sees the rule as more of a last resort.

"We've written letters and gotten no response," he said. "[Minority members] have no subpoena powers. The Republicans who run this committee aren't going to subpoena. The only tool we have left is the 'seven member rule.'"

Most recently, Waxman used the provision to demand information regarding the administration's cost estimates for the recently passed Medicare bill, which may have understated the cost of the bill's benefits by as much as $139 billion. So far, the administration has ignored Waxman's March 15 deadline for providing the information. Waxman sent another letter this week, extending the deadline to March 26.

Waxman also invoked the rule in January to obtain communications between the administration and energy lobbyists during negotiations on the energy bill last fall. And last June, he used the provision to seek information on how the Homeland Security Department tracked Democratic state legislators in Texas who fled the state during the debate on congressional redistricting.

In May 2001, Waxman used the rule to obtain adjusted Census figures that he believed showed an original undercount of minority citizens. After the administration failed to release the numbers, Waxman sued the Commerce Department -- the first instance of the "seven member rule" being used in court. The administration challenged the rule, but the Commerce Department ultimately turned over the figures before an appellate judge ruled on the provision.

Unique to the House Government Reform panel, Waxman said the "seven member rule" aids his committee's role in overseeing the federal government.

"Because it's a committee for oversight, we've had it enshrined into law that the party in the minority can still get some information if seven members insist upon it."

So far, though, Waxman's use of the rule has yielded mixed results. Asked about the ultimate effectiveness of the provision, Waxman said, "We'll see." But he said as long as the administration continues to "stonewall" congressional requests for information, he will continue to invoke the rule. "We shouldn't have to resort to the 'seven member rule' to get information from them," he said.

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