Burton: Ease Up on Subpoenas

Posted April 9, 2007 at 5:55pm

Rep. Dan Burton — the Indiana Republican who showered subpoenas on the Clinton White House as chairman of the House Government Reform Committee — is joining other Republicans in warning that the committee under its new Democratic leadership may be abusing its subpoena powers.

At the end of March, as the House was leaving for a two-week recess, Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) issued a report on the oversight plans of every House committee. The report essentially is a compendium of memos from each committee chairman laying out the issues they plan to investigate, from the Agriculture Committee’s plan to review the federal crop insurance program to the Ways and Means Committee’s promise to probe “China’s rampant theft of massive quantities of U.S. intellectual property.”

But the last few pages were a “minority views” section in which Burton, along with committee ranking member Tom Davis (R-Va.) and most of the other Republican members warned that the Democrats are straying close to the line of what is appropriate in oversight.

“Effective, constructive oversight is much more a matter of due diligence and digging than depositions and sensational disclosures,” the Republicans wrote.

“The minority is concerned the majority may abuse the deposition authority provided to this committee under the 110th House Rules. The minority also is concerned with the majority’s practice of threatening subpoenas to witnesses unless they ‘agree’ to transcribed interviews. These non-deposition depositions, which were never anticipated in the formulation of the committee rules, allow for the abrogation of procedural rights and safeguards otherwise available to the minority and the witnesses. Without those protections, interviews happen with little or no notice, and selected excerpts from the resulting ‘transcripts’ appear in press releases and unofficial committee documents.”

Brian McNicoll, a spokesman for the committee Republicans, said the minority is concerned that Democrats are simply trying to score political points and cutting Republicans out of the oversight process, with tactics such as calling witnesses to “informal” interviews and giving Republicans almost no notice to prepare.

“Waxman is kind of becoming what he decried,” McNicoll said. “He was one of the strongest people raising hell when Burton was doing it. Tom Davis didn’t run the committee like that, and it’s not what Waxman said he would do.”

Waxman rejected any notion that Democrats are wielding their oversight powers recklessly.

“The Committee is conducting long overdue oversight that has already saved taxpayers millions,” he said in a statement. “It has exercised all its powers responsibly. In contrast to the model set by the Republicans during the Clinton administration, when subpoenas were a daily occurrence, the Committee has yet to issue a subpoena.”

Lanny Davis, special counsel to the White House in the Clinton administration with the responsibility of responding to Burton’s campaign finance investigation, said there may be truth to some of the Republican allegations, but it is almost comical for Burton to make the complaint.

“That is so funny in its obvious double standard that it has got to be Dan Burton’s idea for a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit,” Davis said. Now a partner at the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, Davis said the committee’s investigations of the Clinton administration under Burton’s gavel represented “the ultimate example of partisan political use of the subpoena power with no obvious legislative intent.”

But the former White House counsel added that Democrats do have to be cautious. “We complained about Burton’s use of the subpoena power in the 1990s and need to show restraint and not use the same clearly partisan tactics,” he said.

Both sides “are wrong about making this a matter of high principle — it’s about politics and there is nothing wrong with that,” Davis said. “People who are citing legal principles here are applying a double standard, and everybody ought to admit to a double standard.”

Burton was traveling overseas and could not be reached for comment, his staff said.