Grijalva gets broadened subpoena power over GOP objections

The move sets up an all-but-certain escalation with Interior, Commerce and Agriculture

After more than an hour of contentious debate, the House Natural Resources Committee approved a resolution Wednesday granting Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., sweeping subpoena powers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
After more than an hour of contentious debate, the House Natural Resources Committee approved a resolution Wednesday granting Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., sweeping subpoena powers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 12, 2020 at 2:26pm, Updated February 13, 2020 at 1:45pm

Corrected: 1:45 p.m. | The House Natural Resources Committee voted 21-15 Wednesday morning to give its chairman, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, sweeping authority to unilaterally subpoena any of five federal departments and agencies that fall within its jurisdiction and officials who work at those entities.

By advancing the resolution, the committee sets up an all-but-certain escalation with the departments of Interior, Commerce and Agriculture over environmental and energy policies and projects. The authority also applies to the Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Management and Budget.

Democrats on the committee said they have grown particularly irked with Interior, which they say has consistently failed to provide relevant or clear responses to record requests.

After more than an hour of contentious debate, the committee approved the resolution. No Republicans voted for it, though Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., did manage to amend the resolution to prevent it from applying to private citizens who are not current federal workers.

The House Natural Resources Committee voted 21-15 Wednesday morning to give its chairman, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, sweeping authority to unilaterally subpoena any of five federal departments and agencies that fall within its jurisdiction and officials who work at those entities.

By approving the resolution, the committee sets up an all-but-certain escalation with the departments of Interior, Commerce and Agriculture over environmental and energy policies and projects. The authority also applies to the Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Management and Budget.

Democrats on the committee said they have grown particularly irked with Interior, which they say has consistently failed to provide relevant or clear responses to record requests.

After more than an hour of contentious debate, the committee approved the resolution. No Republicans voted for it, though Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., offered an amendment  to allow citizens who are not federal employees to apply for attorneys fees, and ranking member Rob Bishop, R-Utah offered an amendment to require Grijalva to consult the ranking member before issuing subpoenas. The committee approved both by voice vote.

The chairman and Rob Bishop worked out before the vote an agreement to notify committee Republicans when subpoenas are issued.

Republicans pushed back against turning over unilateral subpoena power to the chairman, warning Democrats it could be turned against them if they were in the minority. But Grijalva, D-Ariz., said he had reached his breaking point and his party members backed him up, arguing the Trump administration has delayed and obfuscated unlike past administrations, making rigorous oversight and investigations difficult.

“I do not intend to surprise or harass anybody. I intend to do my job,” Grijalva said. He pledged no subpoenas would be sent without notifying the rest of the committee. “No one can argue that this administration is making those good faith efforts,” he said.

Requests to Interior brought back irrelevant documents, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., said. “We got back a hundred pages of wing-dings and doggy days at DOI.”

Jim Costa and TJ Cox, both moderate Democrats from central California, voted to approve the subpoena power. The power granted to Grijalva could play a role in investigations related to Interior Department water distribution decisions that benefited their agricultural constituents.

Both ways

Republicans on the committee, including Bishop, who once chaired it, said the move could do long-lasting damage to its work, adding that it was challenging to get Interior, under former Secretary Sally Jewell, to turn over records.

“If the majority thinks it was easy to get information from Sally Jewell, you’re crazy,” Bishop said.

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., concurred, citing what he said was a failure in 2015 of the department to supply records about the Gold King mine disaster in Colorado. “Sally Jewell was not exactly a ‘Kathy Chatterbox.’”

Republicans in the future could go after environmental groups and demand internal records, McClintock said. Then he invoked a line from the 1971 film “Dirty Harry.” “Before voting you might want to consider Clint Eastwood's famous question: Do you feel lucky?”

Across the dais, Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., who had been chatting quietly with Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., looked up and shook his head.

At one point, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who chaired the committee in the 1990s, pounded on the dais in opposition to the resolution.

“I do not appreciate that this committee has become very partisan,” he said. “Why are you doing this? It’s just anti-Trump?” he asked. “This Congress has been divided and continues to be divided and nobody wants to work together.”

Young said both parties used to work together on oversight issues. He criticized that voting to give Grijalva subpoena power came in the middle of a Congress. “This is changing the rules in the middle of the stream.”

Noting that other House chairmen have the authority to file subpoenas unilaterally, Democrats said it was past time to take a more aggressive stance in scrutinizing executive agencies.

“We’re not here as potted plants to be cared for and watered when the administration decides it’s time," Grijalva said. “We’ve reached the accumulation point, my friends.”

This report has been revised to reflect that Del. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, I-Marianas, voted on the subpoena resolution, and revised to accurately describe amendments.