The House Judiciary Committee voted 15-12 this week to kill a resolution of inquiry that demanded further information about the jobs allegedly offered by the White House to Joe Sestak and Andrew Romanoff in exchange for dropping out of their respective Senate races.
When the scandal first broke, a few Democrats joined in calls for the White House to come clean, but Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, said House Republicans haven’t found any strong partners from across the aisle interested in pushing an investigation forward.
“Their rhetoric doesn’t match their actions,” Bardella said. “The bottom line is, if Democrats are intent on not advancing disclosure, it’s not going to go anywhere.”
That’s not to say the issue is dead. In the long term, Republicans’ best shot at getting to the bottom of the Sestak and Romanoff controversies may be tied to the November elections. If the GOP wins the House, Republicans win the ability to hold hearings and subpoena witnesses.
“I think at the moment, the Justice Department is not doing anything about it, and the majority in Congress is not doing anything about it, but I don’t think that means it’s forever over,” said Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, who has written on the legal aspects of the issue. “If the Republicans take over in November, they are going to want to initiate an investigation.”
In the short-term, their powers are more limited. A spokesperson for Rep. Lamar Smith, ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, declined to comment on specific courses of action, saying simply that House Republicans are working with leadership to consider all options.
Most of the possibilities, though, boil down to one idea: keeping the issue in the limelight and building public pressure for an investigation.
“The attorney general and various assistant attorney generals do appear on a regular basis before the Senate and House Judiciary Committees,” von Spakovsky said. “That’s the place where the Republicans should hit them with questions over the Sestak and Romanoff issues.”
Republicans could also, if they desired, make use of parliamentary rules to disrupt and obstruct business as protest to the lack of an investigation.
“They can always go to DEFCON 4. But there’s a political judgment to be made in doing that,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center. “You have to have both enough support within your caucus and a feeling that it doesn’t disrupt other political goals that you have.”
Republicans could hold a minority forum, a one-party hearing that doesn’t have the ability to subpoena witnesses. Most of the players involved in the controversy would probably decline to appear, but von Spakovsky said testimony from legal experts could be helpful to the Republicans’ cause.
“I think it could help establish that there really is a federal crime here,” von Spakovsky said.
Without any new information, though, it may be difficult to turn a minority-party protest into an investigation.
“You can put on a good show, but it’s very hard to get actionable prosecutions,” McGehee said. “It’s not the nature of what that position in particular in Congress can do.”
If additional information arises, though — such as testimony at the Blagojevich trial that implicates the White House — the whole case could be blown wide open.
“That would force the prosecutors’ hand,” McGehee said.
The dark horse in the controversy may be the Office of Special Counsel, the independent body that investigates violations of the Hatch Act — the 1939 law that prohibits federal employees from tampering in elections. Rep. Issa referred White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina to the Office of Special Counsel for investigation on June 8.
Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of the Hatch Act Unit of the Office of Special Counsel, said the office does not discuss pending investigations but confirmed receipt of Issa’s documents.
Galindo-Marrone added that, though the results of investigations aren’t usually made public, at some point the body will issue a statement concerning Emanuel and Messina given the high-profile nature of the case.
“In something involving high level public officials, we understand that it’s a matter of public concern, and we would at some point be issuing a statement,” she said.
If the office finds no violation, the investigation will conclude with letters to Emanuel, Messina and Issa. If the office finds a punishable violation, it will refer the case to the Merit Systems Protection Board.
“Then there’s a hearing, and it would be like a regular trial,” Galindo-Marrone said.
She said that although a few cases last for years, the average investigation concludes in a matter of weeks or months.
“That is a fair assertion for most cases, but some cases are more complex, so it depends,” she said.