House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on Wednesday ended a hearing on President Obama’s political affairs office without testimony from scheduled witnesses, saying the proceeding would not be “full and fair” without the appearance of a White House official who defied the panel’s subpoena.
Democrats argue that Issa has not justified the subpoena for David Simas, who directs the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach. “We do not simply haul in one of the president’s top advisers at will,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the panel’s ranking Democrat.
Cummings also played a video from 2011 in which Issa said after becoming chairman that he would seek guidance from other panel members and likely take a vote before issuing subpoenas, something he did not do before demanding Simas’s testimony. “If we cannot come to an agreement, a vote of the committee may very well be the most legitimate way to resolve a difference of opinion between us,” Issa said at the time.
Issa said the committee has a right and a responsibility to conduct oversight of the White House political office, noting that Obama administration officials have a record of violating the Hatch Act, which governs the political activities of federal employees. During his opening remarks, he played a voice mail in which then-Labor Secretary Hilda Solis asked a subordinate to help with Obama’s reelection campaign.
“Just calling you off-the-record here,” Solis said in the recording. “Wanted to ask you if you could help us get folks organized to come to a fundraiser that we’re doing for the Organizing for America for Obama campaign. … There are a lot of folks that we know that are coming but wanted to ask you if you might help contribute or get other folks to help out.”
Issa has complained that the White House opened its political-affairs wing without consulting the Office of Special Counsel, which helps enforce the Hatch Act.
U.S. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner submitted written testimony that said the political office appeared to be adhering to OSC guidance, based on how officials have described its function.
“To the extent that OPSO’s activities are limited to those described in the White House correspondence, OPSO appears to be operating in a manner that is consistent with Hatch Act restrictions,” Lerner wrote.
The White House political affairs office started under President Jimmy Carter. Obama closed the department as his reelection campaign was revving up in 2011, but he reopened it in January.
The office has sparked its fair share of controversy in the past. A 2011 report issued by Acting Special Counsel William Reukauf said that the Bush political affairs office helped coordinate activities that violated the Hatch Act, including sending top appointees to election-battleground states. Additionally, President Bill Clinton and his political affairs staff orchestrated a campaign to raise funds and reward donors with White House perks, such as overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom, during his first term.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that U.S. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner issued a 2011 report on Hatch Act violations by Bush White House officials. The report was issued by Acting Special Counsel William Reukauf.