House Votes To Enforce Its Subpoena Authority In Court

Democrats paint the resolution as "civil contempt," but it's actually another incremental step.

WASHINGTON ― House Democrats escalated their war with the Trump administration over document requests on Tuesday, voting to allow the Judiciary Committee to try to enforce ignored subpoenas in court. But they stopped short of the more direct, promised jab: holding Trump administration officials in contempt.

The House voted 229-191 to enforce subpoenas in civil court, with not a single Republican joining all the Democrats in support of the resolution. Democrats presented the resolution as voting to hold Attorney General William Barr and former White House Counsel Don McGahn in civil contempt, although the resolution itself wouldn’t actually hold anyone in contempt.

Instead, the resolution would allow the Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), to seek a court order against Barr and McGahn to turn over the documents that Democrats are asking for.

House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler said he wouldn’t immediately seek subpoena-enforcing court orders against Attor
House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler said he wouldn’t immediately seek subpoena-enforcing court orders against Attorney General William Barr.

Nadler clarified on the House floor that he wouldn’t be immediately seeking those court orders against Barr, after the Judiciary Committee and the Justice Department reached an agreement on some of the documents related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. “Given this potential breakthrough,” Nadler said, he would hold off on going to court or trying to hold Barr in contempt “for now.”

Nadler may still seek a court order for McGahn to comply with congressional subpoenas, although, again, the resolution does not seek to hold McGahn in contempt.

Tuesday’s debate centered on Democrats arguing this was a simple vote to hold the White House accountable and to seek answers related to questions in the Mueller report, while Republicans sought to undermine the special counsel investigation ― House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) once again falsely claimed that the report concluded there was “no collusion, no obstruction” ― and argued that Democrats were trying to impeach the president.

“It’s an impeachment effort in everything but name,” McCarthy said.

But you could actually criticize Democrats of doing the opposite.

While Democrats are trying to act tough, Tuesday’s resolution was another incremental step that won’t necessarily accomplish anything or move them closer to impeachment.

Democrats have already sought multiple documents from the Trump administration, and President Donald Trump and the White House have fought the requests almost every step of the way.

“The Trump administration is engaged in one of the most unprecedented cover-ups since Watergate,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said Tuesday. He continued that effort wasn’t just directed at the Mueller report, but at every bit of oversight Democrats are trying to conduct.

“This entire year the White House has not produced one document to the Oversight Committee,” Cummings said. “Let me say that again: In all of our investigations the White House has not produced one single shred of paper in response to our requests.”

Cummings noted that the Oversight Committee had issued eight subpoenas ― six of them bipartisan ― on topics ranging from hurricanes in Puerto Rico and security clearances to nuclear technology in Saudi Arabia and taxpayer dollars spent on private jets.

Of the numerous subpoenas Democrats have issued, the one with the strongest legal justification may be the House Ways and Means Committee’s request for copies of Trump’s tax returns. But they’ve hesitated to make that case.

The second that Democrats assumed control of the House this year, they had the power to seek Trump’s tax returns. A federal law enacted nearly 100 years ago allows the chairs of tax committees to ask the Internal Revenue Service to turn over anyone’s private tax information.

Democrats’ other subpoenas should also succeed in court, as federal judges have generally upheld the congressional power to investigate the executive branch. But the tax return subpoena is the only one with an underlying law that explicitly says the executive is supposed to hand over the requested information.

Democrats during the midterm elections had vowed to use the law to get Trump’s taxes, yet the Ways and Means chairman, Richard Neal (D-Mass.), waited three months to make the request, saying committee lawyers needed time to craft the letter so they would have a stronger position in the inevitable court battle. The Trump administration denied the request, so Neal issued subpoenas, which the administration formally denied on May 17. At that point, Neal could have sued in federal court ― but he has waited, again.

Neal told HuffPost on Tuesday that the lawsuit is “coming” and that it is “near,” but declined to say if it will land this week. He did say, however, that he hasn’t been waiting for Tuesday’s floor vote.

“We’re not dependent upon this,” Neal said. “We don’t think we needed any approval.”

It’s not clear what Neal has been waiting for, though other members of his committee say the lawyers simply need time to draft the complaint.

But there’s not much time. All the subpoenas Democrats have issued will expire after the next election, when a new Congress is seated. Both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations were able to appeal and extend cases beyond their political relevance, essentially dodging accountability.

Still, some Democrats seem to think these resolution votes and investigations are leading them closer to impeachment.

“First of all, this is not the end,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said on the floor. “Director Mueller made this the beginning.”