Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on Thursday offered the White House a chance to avoid a potential contempt battle by making its top political adviser available for deposition with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The White House last week defied a subpoena from Issa to appear before the panel, saying David Simas is “immune from congressional compulsion” as a close adviser to President Obama.
Issa, who chairs the committee, has scheduled another hearing for Friday, with the goal of examining the activities of the Simas-led White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach.
If the White House does not accept Issa’s offer, the panel is likely to approve a resolution rejecting the Obama administration’s immunity argument, a step that would help the panel shore up any potential case for contempt of Congress.
In a letter to the White House on Thursday, Issa said he is “willing to postpone tomorrow’s proceeding if the White House makes the same commitments to cooperate as the Bush administration did previously.”
Issa was referring to the George W. Bush administration agreeing to allow depositions for White House advisers who helped coordinate activities that violated federal law, including sending top appointees to election battleground states.
Republicans want to know whether the Obama White House’s political office is running afoul of the Hatch Act, which governs the political activities of federal employees. Democrats say the chairman has not justified his subpoena, arguing that he has offered no specific evidence of wrongdoing.
Issa pointed out in his letter that the Office of Special Council, which enforces the Hatch Act, determined that former Health and Human Service Secretary Kathleen Sebelius violated the Hatch Act by attending a 2012 campaign event on the taxpayer dime and calling on attendees to make sure Obama “continues to be president for another four years.”
The chairman also mentioned a voicemail that the committee released last week in which former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis asked a subordinate to help with an Obama reelection fundraiser.
One problem for Issa: the political office was not open during that period. Obama closed the department when his campaign kicked into gear in 2011, and he reopened it in January 2014.
Steve Barkan, who is advising Solis’ campaign for Los Angeles County supervisor, said in a statement in February that the former Labor chief knows the Hatch Act well and “believes that her participation in the [fundraiser] was proper and does not believe that she has done anything illegal or improper,” according to a Los Angeles Times report.
U.S. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in a letter Thursday to the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), that the Obama political office appears to be complying with Hatch Act restrictions “[t]o the extent that OPSO’s activities are limited to those described in the White House correspondence [with the oversight committee].”
Lerner also said that her office “has not received any allegations that
Assistant to the President David Simas or anyone in OPSO has violated the Hatch Act.”
Cummings has accused Issa of abusing his subpoena authority since taking over as head of the panel in 2011, noting that his Republican colleague has issued more subpoenas than the last three chairmen combined.