Rep. Elijah Cummings, the combative foil to top GOP oversight official Rep. Darrell Issa, is making his first significant power move to cut Issa down to size, demanding authority to stop Issa from issuing congressional subpoenas “unilaterally.”
In a Jan. 24 letter, Cummings claims Issa vowed to him privately to aggressively use his subpoena power “more expansively” than past oversight committee chairmen. Congressional subpoena power gives Issa almost unlimited authority to demand documents and compel testimony from the Obama administration.
Now, Cummings is pushing to give Democrats input on which subpoenas Issa issues and force a committee vote on any he disagrees with.
“You stated that you would not bring any subpoenas before the committee for a vote. It is difficult to imagine any case in which you not have sufficient time to seek my concurrence. It is even more difficult to imagine why you would go forward with a subpoena without a committee vote in cases of significant controversy or disagreement,” Cummings says in the letter.
“Given your position, you have left me no choice but to offer an amendment to the committee rules at tomorrow’s business meeting to codify the bipartisan, historical practice of your predecessors,” Cummings says.
For his part, Issa met Cummings’ charge of “unilateral” subpoenas with his own allegation that Cummings wants to employ “unilateral obstructionism.”
“Rep. Cummings obtained this position by convincing his caucus that he would be a better obstructionist than Chairman Towns or his more senior colleague, Carolyn Maloney. Since assuming the position as Ranking Member, it is evident that obstruction is the only agenda Mr. Cummings in interested in pursuing. Ultimately, the fellow Democratic members of the Committee will have to judge for themselves if they are comfortable with following his path of unilateral obstructionism,” said a spokesman for Issa.
A source close to the committee also denied a key Cummings charge, that Issa had said he would not allow a vote on any subpoenas.
Since Republicans hold a majority on the committee, the proposal by Cummings would not likely give Democrats power to block any subpoenas, but would instead give Cummings and his fellow Democrats another venue to attack Issa on his oversight moves.
The power move by Cummings comes the same day as Issa pushed Cummings to “join with me” in finding regulations issued by Obama that are impeding economic growth.
The contrast between the two lawmakers’ moves highlights the role Cummings is staking out as a combative foil willing to fight Issa for every inch, with Issa trying to appear statesmanlike and above the fray.
In demanding a bigger role for Democrats on the subpoena process, Cummings is pointing to arrangements reached under the tenures of past oversight committee chairmen, including Reps. Henry Waxman, California Democrat, and former GOP Rep. Tom Davis.
“The historical practice of all but one of your predecessors, however, has been to refrain from issuing subpoenas unilaterally. Recognizing that the subpoena power is one of the most coercive powers of Congress, the policy of both Republican and Democratic chairmen alike has been to obtain (1) the concurrence of the ranking minority member or (2) a committee vote,” Cummings says.
In other words, if Cummings, the committee’s top Democrat, did not approve of a given subpoena, he could force a vote before the full committee, potentially slowing down the process to a crawl.
“The major exception to this practice was Rep. Dan Burton, who served as chairman from 1997 to 2002. He issued more than 1,000 subpoenas during the Clinton administration without seeking minority concurrence or a committee vote,” Cummings says, “As a result of these and other abuses, the committee was criticized repeatedly, at one point being referred to as ‘its own cartoon, a joke, and a deserved embarrassment.’”
Cummings also claims Issa is withholding documents from him.