Speech or Debate in Congressional Employment Litigation

In June a panel of the D.C. Circuit decided Howard v. Office of the CAO, in which a former congressional employee argued the Speech or Debate Clause did not bar her lawsuit challenging adverse employment action under the Congressional Accountability Act. If it stands, the case resolves a question left open by Fields v. Office of Eddie Bernice Johnson, 459 F.3d 1 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (en banc), appeal dismissed and cert. den. sub nom., Office of Senator Mark Dayton v. Hanson, 550 U.S. 511 (2007). However, the Chief Administrative Officer of the House has petitioned for rehearing en banc, and the D.C. Circuit has ordered Howard to file a response, so it is possible the Howard case will be reheard by the full court.

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Rob Natelson on the Article V Convention

In an article recently published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Professor Rob Natelson provides a brief but illuminating summary of how the Article V convention fits within the constitutional plan designed by the Founders. Natelson, the nation’s foremost expert on state initiation of constitutional amendments, explains that the Article V convention played a pivotal role in addressing two main arguments made by anti-Federalists, who predicted that the Constitution would undermine the sovereignty and autonomy of the states:

The first argument was that the Constitution granted too much power to the federal government, which could lead to abuse of that power. The second argument was more subtle but ultimately proved more prescient: Even if the Constitution, when honestly, fairly, and objectively read, did not give the federal government excessive power, ambitious and clever people would nonetheless twist its language to justify the seizure by the central government of enormous power, regardless of the understanding of those who wrote and ratified the instrument.

R. Natelson, The Article V Convention Process and the Restoration of Federalism, 36 Harv. J. Law & Pub. Pol’y 955, 956 (Spring 2013).

The Article V convention responded to both of these arguments, as Madison and Hamilton took pains to point out in The Federalist. First, thanks to the convention process, Article V “equally enables the general and the state governments, to originate the amendment of errors, as they may be pointed out by the experience on one side or on the other.” Federalist No. 43 (Madison). Thus, to the extent the Constitution proved to give too much power to the “general government,” the states could “originate the amendment of errors” without being subject to a congressional veto. This addressed the fear that any excessive national power would be permanently entrenched.

Second, the Article V convention process gave the state legislatures a significant constitutional power to counteract overreach by Congress or the federal government. Hamilton explained in Federalist No. 85 that, as a consequence of Article V’s design, “[w]e may safely rely on the disposition of the state legislators to erect barriers against the encroachments of the national authority.” Thus, Natelson observes: “[T]he Founders saw the amendment procedure as more than a way of responding to changed circumstances. They saw it as a tool for curbing excesses and abuses.” 36 Harv. J. Law & Pub. Pol’y at 957.

While no Article V convention has ever been called, Natelson points out that state legislatures can use their power short of actually calling a convention. Id. at 959. If “state legislatures flex[] their Article V muscles by applying, in a concerted manner, for a convention to propose amendments,” they can force Congress to propose an amendment as the price of not actually triggering the convention call. Id. Thus, “the States forced the United States Senate to agree to the Seventeenth Amendment . . . when thirty-one of the necessary thirty-two [at the time] applied for a convention limited to proposing a direct election amendment.” Id. at 959-60.

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Congressional Release of Classified Information and the Disciplinary Power

In reference to my last post, it has been suggested by one of the more faithful commenters at Balkinization, Shag from Brookline, that the Speech or Debate Clause might bar a house of Congress from taking disciplinary action against a member who unilaterally releases classified information without authorization. Shag asks: “Can action by Congress trump the specific Speech and Debate [sic] clause? Is such Speech and Debate permitted to be questioned in a house of Congress with such action but not in any other Place? Does the First Amendment speech clause enhance or detract from the right (privilege) of a member of Congress under the Speech and Debate [sic] clause?” Shag goes on to ask how the original understanding of and historical practice under the Speech or Debate Clause might be applied in the context of “the fairly recently evolved national security state.”

As legal questions go, the ones Shag asks with regard to the Speech or Debate Clause have very straightforward answers. The text of the Clause is clear that it applies only in “any other Place,” i.e., outside the legislative branch. See, e.g., Howard v. Office of the Chief of Administrative Officer, No. 12-5119 (D.C. Cir. June 28, 2013) (“because the Office of Compliance process occurs within the Legislative Branch, not in a ‘other Place,’ the Speech or Debate Clause does not pose an issue in those cases”) (Kavanaugh, J., dissenting); see also United States v. Brewster, 408 U.S. 501, 517-21 (1972) (discussing the fact that misconduct protected by the Speech or Debate Clause may nonetheless be punished by either house under its disciplinary power). As far as I know, no member has ever asserted the Speech or Debate Clause, either as a defense or as a protection against inquiry, in the course of a congressional disciplinary proceeding. Nor has any scholar, court or anyone else with expertise on the Clause suggested that it could apply in a congressional proceeding. Put simply, a member who faces disciplinary action as the result of disclosing classified information can take no solace in the Speech or Debate Clause.

The question with regard to the First Amendment is slightly more complicated. We recently discussed, in the context of the Rangel case, the question of whether and to what extent constitutional protections apply in congressional disciplinary proceedings. As Outside Counsel’s report indicates, even if such protections apply, they cannot be applied in a rigid manner that ignores the unique nature, purpose and history of congressional disciplinary proceedings. Thus, while one can imagine a plausible First Amendment defense in a congressional disciplinary proceeding (say, for example, if the House or Senate sought to punish members who give interviews to a disfavored press outlet), it is unthinkable that the First Amendment would prevent the House and Senate from enforcing rules that are broadly consistent with traditional limitations on member speech. For example, members cannot claim a First Amendment right to violate rules of decorum and debate, by say interrupting another member who has the floor, using foul language in congressional proceedings, or insulting the President.

Is there a colorable argument that disclosure of classified information by a member deserves First Amendment protection from congressional discipline, perhaps because of the importance of such disclosure in checking “the fairly recently evolved national security state”? Put me in the deeply skeptical camp on that one. Both the House and Senate have had specific prohibitions against unauthorized disclosure of classified information for decades. Punishing members for unauthorized disclosure of secret information goes back even further. On December 31, 1810, it is reported: “The Senator from Massachusetts (Mr. Pickering) was censured for reading from confidential documents in the Senate in open session before the injunction of secrecy had been removed.” Riddick’s Senate Procedure 270 n.1. It is hard to imagine the House and Senate intelligence and ethics committees agreeing that individual members have a constitutional right to violate congressional secrecy rules just because they believe the public interest requires it.

Whatever the merits of such a constitutional argument, however, it will be weaker if a member makes it without first attempting to use the established congressional procedures for releasing classified information. This was my original point, and if Professor Ackerman or anyone else disagrees, they should explain why.

Congressional Release of Classified Information and the Speech or Debate Clause

At Foreign Policy, Professor Bruce Ackerman asks “should members of Congress use their special constitutional powers of free speech to force the facts about the [NSA surveillance program] out into the open?” Ackerman notes that under the Speech or Debate Clause, members of Congress “cannot be prosecuted for reading classified material into the public record– and it is up to them, and them alone, to decide what is worth talking about.” He therefore proposes that individual members of Congress who  oppose the surveillance program, such as Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, disclose such classified information regarding the surveillance program as they believe the public needs to know. Ackerman dramatically concludes “[t]he moment of truth is now.”

Ackerman is certainly correct that the Speech or Debate Clause immunizes members of Congress from prosecution for disclosing classified information on the floor or in committee hearings. See Gravel v. U.S., 408 U.S. 606 (1972). As he also recognizes, however, members are not protected against congressional discipline, up to and including expulsion, for revealing classified information without permission.

What Ackerman overlooks is that both the House and Senate have established procedures for releasing classified information. Wyden, for example, could ask SSCI to disclose information regarding the NSA surveillance program under section 8 of S. Res. 400, which provides that SSCI “may, subject to the provisions of this section, disclose publicly any information in the possession of such committee after a determination by such committee that the public interest would be served by such disclosure.” If SSCI votes for public disclosure, it must then notify and consult with the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders prior to notifying the President of the vote. Once the President has been notified and five days have elapsed, SSCI may release the information to the public unless “the President, personally in writing, notifies the committee that he objects to the disclosure of such information, provides his reasons therefore, and certifies that the threat to the national interest of the United States posed by such disclosure is of such gravity that it outweighs any public interest in the disclosure.” In that case, the Senate itself must vote before disclosure may be made.

Ackerman seems to be suggesting that Wyden or other members circumvent this procedure and unilaterally release classified information to the public. This is a bad idea. If the Senate or House allows one member to do this with impunity, nothing would prevent other members from making classified disclosures on the same or other topics. Eventually someone will release information that damages national security and/or provokes a public backlash, thereby giving the executive branch a justification for restricting congressional access to classified information.

Although the congressional procedures for releasing classified information have rarely (if ever) been used, there is nothing preventing Wyden or a like-minded member from seeking to use them now. Certainly such an attempt must be made before there could be any justification for a unilateral disclosure. If there is a moment for unilateral disclosure, in other words, it is not now.

It should be noted, however that SSCI’s draconian interpretation of its secrecy rules might deter Wyden (or others) from publicly disclosing even the fact of an attempt to invoke section 8 of S. Res. 400. This could prevent him from building needed public support for his efforts. Ackerman and others concerned with excessive government secrecy might more profitably focus on that issue rather than advocate for unilateral disclosure that could undermine the entire congressional system for handling classified information.