House panel to vote on subpoena powers for Grijalva

Natural Resources chairman would get power to seek records, testimony from Interior, OMB and other agencies

Raul Grijalva
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., would get broad power to subpoena for testimony and documents from five agencies. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 12, 2020 at 5:00am

The House Natural Resources Committee is expected to vote Wednesday to give its chairman, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., sweeping authority to unilaterally subpoena any of five federal agencies that fall within its jurisdiction and officials who work at those departments.

The committee resolution to provide Grijalva that power is broad in scope and allows him to subpoena records and testimony he determines “necessary” from the departments of Interior, Commerce and Agriculture. It permits subpoenas for two White House agencies: the Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Management and Budget.

The panel will also vote Wednesday on a series of six bills in addition to the subpoena resolution.

With a modest majority, Democrats on the committee can afford to lose two defectors as long as all other committee members show up and vote to approve the subpoenas. Attendance has been a problem for the panel this Congress. Republicans adjourned a hearing in February 2019 when only two Democrats showed.

The subpoena vote queues up a clash between the committee chairman and the Interior Department, who have been sliding toward confrontation since the Democrats assumed the majority in January last year.

Grijalva and other Democrats on the panel are itching to dig into Interior over a series of decisions and moves they view as politically influenced or motivated, including offshore drilling plans, the new Bureau of Land Management headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., and the Trump administration’s decision to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah. 

Wednesday's vote is needed to override rules that do not give the chairman authority to issue subpoenas without a committee vote

Agencies have provided some records to the committee in the past. Still, Democrats have groused that Interior has failed to turn over records of substance relevant to their requests, responding to the committee with blacked out pages and others covered in the wing-ding font.

No-shows

At least two top DOI officials have failed to show up when called for hearings. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Director Scott Angelle and U.S. Geological Survey Director James Reilly sent deputies instead, irking Democrats.

Ahead of the vote, Interior, in a statement on Twitter, downplayed any notion it was not responding to oversight requests: “2nd delivery for @NRDems and Chairman @RepRaulGrijalva in less than a week! @Interior continues to produce an unprecedented # of documents. This year alone producing 4,115 documents –– totaling 42,714 pages.” 

Grijalva has signaled his interest in subpoenaing records about the Fish and Wildlife Service’s intervention in a draft scientific report the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service wrote that said maximizing the water supplied to farmers in central California would imperil the survival of multiple endangered salmon, steelhead trout and a killer whale that relies on the fish for food. 

After FWS intervened, the report’s findings changed to say the government could supply the farmers more water and still conserve the endangered species. 

Turning up congressional scrutiny of the Commerce decision could place two Democratic members on the committee, Reps. Jim Costa and TJ Cox, in a bind since they represent parts of central California that will likely benefit from more water. 

If Grijalva compels documents or testimony demonstrating undue political influence over the report, a court could overturn its conclusions.

Costa told CQ Roll Call in a recent interview he would support sweeping subpoena power but would back specific subpoenas over the BLM headquarters relocation. His office did not respond Tuesday when asked how he will vote.

Grijalva told reporters last week he will not give lawmakers any assurances about subpoena targets in order to win support for the unilateral authority. “Once you do that, what’s the point?” he said.