Here are the top three ways Washington will be different after this week’s midterm elections:
First, President Obama will have to go through John Boehner and Co. to pass any bill. Second, Republicans will be held politically accountable for their actions in a way they haven’t been during their years in the minority. And third, Rep. Darrell Issa and his fellow GOP committee chairmen in the House will have subpoena power come January.
What exactly does that mean? A congressional subpoena allows House committees to compel the administration and any federal agency to produce documents or testimony related to a broadly-defined “legislative purpose.”
Courts have rarely interfered with this privilege and presidential administrations don’t often fight it.
Subpoena power, in other words, means that Issa, who will soon be the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, can legally compel the Obama administration to hand over virtually any document it has.
Issa is downplaying his new role, telling reporters, “My job is to make the president a success” by helping him eliminate waste and abuse in the executive branch. He is also talking up a series of relatively benign subjects as his top priorities heading into the next Congress: continuing oversight of the FDA’s food safety regulations, eyeing the Postal Service’s financial difficulties, and extending subpoena power to the inspectors general across all the federal agencies.
In reality, Issa’s new powers pose great peril to Obama — and to Republicans, too, if they overreach.
Consider two examples from Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Responding to a congressional subpoena in April 1997, White House aides sifted through reams of documents from the Democratic National Committee regarding presidential fundraisers. Then-special counsel Lanny Davis and his deputy, Adam Goldberg, were beginning to panic. They had found a memo from Clinton consigliore Terry McAuliffe connecting the financial support of major donors to overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House. Helpfully attached was a handwritten note from the president telling aides to “get other names” for the overnights of people who had donated “[$]100,000 or more” or “[$]50,000 or more.”
“I just sat and stared for a few minutes, my heart pounding,” Davis wrote in his book “Truth to Tell.” Knowing that Republicans were going to get their hands on the document anyway, the White House preemptively leaked it in one of their famous document dumps. It was painful – and in the end, politically disastrous — but they had no choice.
But Democrats weren’t the only ones who suffered the consequences of subpoenas during the Clinton years. During Clinton’s first term, Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, then chairman of the House Oversight Committee, became convinced that Clinton aide Vince Foster hadn’t committed suicide, but rather had been murdered. From his perch as chairman, Burton led the investigation into Foster’s death.
To demonstrate that Foster couldn’t have shot himself, Burton staged a reenactment in his backyard in which he shot a watermelon (some reports say a pumpkin) meant to represent Foster’s head.
Burton was mercilessly mocked as “Watermelon Dan” and the stunt backfired.
Of course, some point to the impeachment of Clinton as the ultimate overreach. While most Americans considered the president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky disgraceful, in the end, Clinton skated away with sky-high popularity.