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.