A House panel on Friday officially rejected the Obama administration’s claim that White House political adviser David Simas is immune from a congressional subpoena, setting up a potential contempt battle.
The Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted along party lines to approve a resolution saying that the White House has “denied committee members and the American people an opportunity to hear from the head of an office that has — under several previous administrations — misused government resources for political purposes.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, agreed that the White House does not have absolute immunity from congressional subpoenas, but he said that “this is the worst possible case with which to try our position.”
Democrats said Republicans lack justification for the Simas subpoena, noting that they have offered no evidence of potential wrongdoing. He and other Democrats on the panel said GOP lawmakers are trying to launch a “fishing expedition” to find potentially damaging information.
Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said the committee has a responsibility to examine the White House political affairs office, but he acknowledged that the panel has no evidence of wrongdoing. “We are accusing neither the president nor this four-person office of any wrongdoing,” he said.
Republicans noted that White House political offices have a history of Hatch Act violations during previous administrations. They also pointed out that one of President Obama’s past Cabinet members, former Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius, was found to have run afoul of the federal statute, which governs the political activities of federal employees and officials.
The Sebelius incident occurred at a time when the White House political office was inactive. Obama closed the office in 2011 and reopened it in January 2014.
U.S. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in a letter to Cummings on Thursday that the Obama White House’s 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.”
Issa on Thursday offered the White House a chance to make Simas available for deposition rather than having him appear publicly before the committee.
Cummings recommended that Issa continue negotiating with the White House to obtain information from the political office rather than pressing forward with the subpoena.