White House Again Rebuffs Issa Subpoena of Political Chief

Karen Grigoryan/Shutterstock.com

For the second week in a row, President Obama’s staff has rejected a subpoena from the House Oversight panel chairman compelling live testimony from the head of the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach.

At a brief Friday morning hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., officially noted that Obama political aide David Simas was absent “but not excused,” saying the White House had informed him at 7:30 a.m. that morning that the witness would not be testifying.

The hearing, titled “White House Office of Political Affairs: Is Supporting Candidates and Campaign Fund-Raising an Appropriate Use of a Government Office?,” was originally scheduled for July 16, but the White House at that time declined to permit Simas to appear. Also scheduled to appear—but cancelled due to Simas’ absence—were Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner and former George W. Bush White House Associate Counsel Scott Coffina. 

In a July 15 letter to Issa, White House Counsel W. Neil Eggleston asked Issa to withdraw his subpoena, invoking a doctrine of executive branch independence articulated by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel going back to the Reagan and Nixon administrations. “You have made no effort to justify your extraordinary demand that one of the president’s intimate advisers testify at a committee hearing,” Eggleston wrote. “The committee’s current interest in the [Office of Political Strategy and Outreach] lacks any predicate of wrongdoing or misconduct.”

The White House further noted that during earlier controversies over a previous entity, the White House Office of Political Affairs, then-Oversight Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., interviewed Bush White House employees without live testimony. Eggleston offered alternatives such as more staff-to-staff meetings.

Obama shut down the White House Office of Political Affairs—which planned presidential and Cabinet member political travel—early in his term. That office differed from the more restricted current setup, Eggleston added, challenging Issa’s characterization that the old political office had been “reopened.”

Issa told the sparsely attended hearing that he knows of no “wrongdoing or predicate claim of wrongdoing” that motivates his demand for Simas to testify. “But there have been two Cabinet member violations of the Hatch Act in the past, and we have to look at [that] for all government officials, even those not covered by the Hatch Act,” he said. “Isn’t oversight our right? We have to ask whether this four-person office is a necessary office, and what happens when the call comes in and someone on the government’s dime decides to send a Cabinet member to some congressional district. Because this office closed after a [Bush-era] scandal, it’s probably the most important oversight we do.”

Issa agreed that all presidents combine business travel with campaigning and fund-raising. “But if something bad happens, it’s not a scandal but a chance for further reform,” he said. “Oversight is ongoing. We’re not asking what the president said on what trip or what was decided, but how it was decided by federal employees.”

Ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., expressed hope that the two sides could avoid the subpoena and cooperate at the staff level. “We’re wondering when the constant questions would end, and whether the chairman is not moving the goal posts,” Cummings said.

Issa said he had sought alternatives to the subpoena such as transcribed interviews, but that lifting it would be “inappropriate” because Simas might then not appear. “We’re not moving the goalposts,” he said. “We expect there to be lots of questions from both sides.”

At a later business meeting, the committee then approved a resolution enforcing its rejection of the White House argument that Simas is immune from testifying on matters relating to his official duties. That prompted Cummings to release a letter from the special counsel’s office saying that the White House had “adhered to OSC guidance” in determining the scope of the new White House political office in a “manner consistent with Hatch Act restrictions.”  Cummings did not, however, endorse the White House claims of strict immunity from testifying.

(Image via Karen Grigoryan/Shutterstock.com)

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.