A dispute between Democratic leadership and the insurgent left flank of the party has thrust an arcane question about congressional rules into controversy — do select committees have subpoena power?
In recent weeks, Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has prioritized the establishment of a new select committee on a Green New Deal, or a plan to transform the economy away from fossil fuels. Like the original New Deal, such a push would require large scale investments in green infrastructure and jobs.
Ocasio-Cortez secured the commitment of incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi to convene the select committee following a demonstration by the Sunrise Movement, an environmental group, outside of Pelosi’s office in November.
Select committees typically have the power to subpoena, according to the Congressional Research Service. On the Green New Deal select committee, members could presumably wield subpoenas to investigate oil and gas companies. But Democratic leadership has indicated Ocasio-Cortez’s new committee will not have that authority.
“The creation of the Select Committee was a decision made by Leader Pelosi, and it will be up to her as to whether or not the Committee will have subpoena powers,” said a senior Democratic aide.
Senior Democratic staffers have signaled that requests for subpoenas from Ocasio-Cortez’s select committee will be routed through an existing standing committee “should an issue arise.”
The chief of staff for Ocasio-Cortez described a committee without subpoena power as a potentially “radical” departure from standing order by senior Democrats.
“We are simply asking for what is the usual power granted to all committees,” Saikat Chakrabarti tweeted. “In fact, is there an example in recent history of ANY committee, select or standing, NOT having subpoena power?”
In a meeting with reporters on Wednesday, incoming Majority Leader Steny Hoyer described the select committee as “recommendatory” to a more powerful standing committee.
“I don’t know that they think they need subpoena power. My expectation is there will be a committee, and my expectation it will not have subpoena power,” Hoyer said. “It will be a recommendatory committee to the Energy and Commerce Committee and the environmental committees.”
Ocasio-Cortez expressed discontent in response to Hoyer’s comments, which were first reported by The Hill.
“Our ultimate end goal isn’t a Select Committee. Our goal is to treat Climate Change like the serious, existential threat it is by drafting an ambitious solution on the scale necessary— aka a Green New Deal— to get it done,” she tweeted. “A weak committee misses the point & endangers people.”
The Sunrise Movement, which has led the grassroots push for a Green New Deal, demonstrated outside of Pelosi’s office again on Dec. 10 in protests that resulted in nearly 150 arrests.
Another one of the group’s primary targets for demonstration was Hoyer, since the longtime Pelosi deputy has accepted more than a quarter of a million dollars from the fossil fuel industry.
Hoyer “has been very clear that we must take action on climate change,” a spokeswoman for Maryland Democrat said. “After years of Republicans refusing to address this crisis and taking steps to exacerbate climate change, the new Democratic Majority will prioritize acting on climate in the 116th Congress.”
The Sunrise Movement described the defanged Green New Deal select committee as an “insult.”
In response to reports about the committee’s lack of subpoena power, Sunrise Movement spokeswoman Varshini Prakash said in a statement that “if true, this decision is an insult to the thousands of young people across the country who have been calling on Democratic Party leadership to have the courage to stand up to fossil fuel billionaires and make sure our generation has a livable future.”
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