The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Friday passed a resolution rejecting an assertion that the top White House political official is immune from testifying before Congress.
Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) issued a subpoena earlier this month to hear testimony from David Simas, director of the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach. Issa has said Simas is heading an office similar to past White House offices that have run afoul of a law prohibiting political activities on government time.
But the White House has twice said Simas is “immune” from being required to testify. Issa gave the White House one last chance to testify before the committee Friday morning, but Simas did not appear.
After noting his absence, the committee briefly recessed, then reconvened to debate and consider the resolution, which passed in a party-line vote, 19-14.
“Mr. Simas’s failure to appear at the hearing, either on July 16 or July 25, 2014, 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,” the resolution states.
The resolution does not find contempt for Simas, or make any other charge other than to “reject the claim made by the White House that Mr. Simas is immune from congressional compulsion to testify on matters relating to his official duties.”
The issue sparked a fierce debate over whether and when the committee has the power to summon executive branch officials before Congress. Several Democrats charged that without any evidence of wrongdoing, the committee should not subpoena anyone.
But Issa and other Republicans said the committee has the right to examine how the office is operating, even without an allegation of wrongdoing. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said the Democratic position makes no sense, since it would prevent Congress from asking anyone to testify until serious wrongdoing has occurred, and noted that Congress has no power to run criminal investigations.
“Can we summon someone before Congress to discuss good news?” Gowdy asked. “What if they’ve done a good job. Can we send them a summons?
“Can we invite them to come share with us the progress and the success they’ve had? Not under your standard,” he said to Democrats.
Republicans have admitted that there is no allegation of wrongdoing, and that they are just trying to provide oversight of an office that is similar to other White House offices that have violated the Hatch Act, which limits political activities on government time.
In 2011, the Obama administration closed down a related political office, just before a report was due to be filed criticizing the office for violations of the Hatch Act. The administration reopened the new office headed by Simas in early 2014.
The White House has briefed the committee in private on how it operates, and said Simas is only charged with setting political schedules for President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
But Issa said the office appears to be coordinating political events involving Cabinet-level officials and lower-level officials. “Who is scheduling, and how are they scheduling them?” Issa asked of those other officials.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) argued at the hearing that the White House should be obligated to at least explain what the office is doing, particularly in light of how past political offices have had problems complying with the Hatch Act.
Read the resolution here: