At the June 28 meeting of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, a question arose about the role of House Counsel in providing legal advice to COGR and its members. Chairman Issa had requested and received a House Counsel opinion on whether Lois Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment privilege by making an exculpatory opening statement at a prior COGR hearing. Issa took the position that this opinion was attorney-client privileged. Although he shared the opinion with Ranking Member Cummings prior to the June 28 meeting, he had asked Cummings to limit distribution of the document to prevent public disclosure.
Specifically, Issa requested that Cummings not distribute the opinion to “all of your members,” presumably because he feared that such wide distribution would inevitably lead to its being leaked. Committee Democrats protested that every member of COGR had an equal right to the opinion because House Counsel is charged with representing the House as a whole. Issa countered that each member of COGR was free to obtain his or her own opinion from House Counsel. He maintained, however, that this opinion was given to the committee majority and had been shared with the minority only as a “courtesy.”
This debate reflects some confusion about the function of House Counsel. It may also reflect the fact that the role of congressional lawyers in general, and House Counsel in particular, is, as the law professors like to say, “under-theorized.” (Which, admittedly, is a bit like your State Farm agent saying you are “under-insured”). As I noted a few years ago:
House Rule II(8), which establishes OHC [the Office of House Counsel], provides that the office exists,
for the purpose of providing legal assistance and representation to the House. Legal assistance and representation shall be provided without regard to political affiliation. The Office of General Counsel shall function pursuant to the direction of the Speaker, who shall consult with a Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, which shall include the majority and minority leaderships.
This language, which constitutes essentially all of the legal authority defining the scope of the OHC’s functions and obligations, provides only limited guidance as to the OHC’s ethical responsibilities. It could be read to suggest that OHC’s responsibilities run primarily, if not exclusively, to the House as an institution, rather than to individual members or offices. On the other hand, it requires that OHC provide assistance and representation without regard to political affiliation, a directive that seems unintelligible except in the context of providing advice or representation to particular members. Finally, it implies that questions about the OHC’s responsibilities, including issues relating to the House’s institutional legal interests and positions, are to be resolved by the Speaker of the House after consultation with the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG).
Michael L. Stern, Ethical Obligations of Congressional Lawyers, 63 NYU Ann. Survey of Am. L. 191, 199 (2007).