In the Federalist Society Review, Chris Armstrong, the Deputy Chief Oversight Counsel for Chairman Hatch at the Senate Finance Committee, has written an article entitled “A Costly Victory for Congress: Executive Privilege after Committee on Oversight and Government Reform v. Lynch.” (Actually, he wrote this in June, but I am a little behind on everything, as you may have noticed).
Although the House committee mostly “won” this case at the district court level because Judge Amy Berman Jackson ordered DOJ to turn over many of the Fast and Furious related documents the committee was seeking, Armstrong points out the the court’s reasoning actually “lay[s] out a vision of an expansive deliberative process privilege that—if it stands—may diminish Congress’s powers to investigate the Executive Branch.” Specifically, by allowing the assertion of a constitutional privilege against Congress for any records that would reveal aspects of the executive branch’s deliberations with respect to policies or decisions it makes, the court opened the door to a privilege that “can be invoked against producing nearly any record the President chooses.”
Armstrong is right to be concerned about the implications of the district court’s ruling. As I pointed out earlier this year, Congress can expect that agencies will seize upon Judge Jackson’s opinion to resist congressional oversight. Armstrong suggests this is already happening, noting a recent “marked increase” in deliberative process claims “across agencies and to a wide range of congressional committees conducting active investigations.” He further expresses the concern that “we may be entering an era in which fewer disputes are resolved through good faith negotiation and the federal judiciary becomes the primary venue for settling these disputes,” a result that “may not bode well for Congress.”
This would indeed be an unfortunate development. However, as I wrote in my post on this topic, Congress can avoid this result by taking action to limit the types of subpoena enforcement cases that come before the judiciary. Essentially, such cases should be limited to situations where the president has not invoked executive privilege, thereby leaving the courts without any constitutional dispute to resolve (there still could be non-constitutional issues such as the committee’s jurisdiction and the relevance of the information sought).
So how should congressional committees go about enforcing their subpoenas when the president invokes executive privilege? A number of ideas have been floated, including using the appropriations process to restrict funding for agencies that refuse to comply with congressional subpoenas. The Select Committee on Benghazi, for example, recommends that “House and Senate rules should be amended to provide for mandatory reductions in appropriations to the salaries of federal officials held in contempt of Congress.” (see section IV, p. 66 of the Select Committee report). Other ideas include reinvigorating inherent contempt (in which the legislative body itself punishes the recalcitrant official), amending the criminal contempt statute to provide for appointment of a special counsel to prosecute contempt by executive officials (another recommendation of the Select Committee), and impeachment.
Whatever mechanism(s) Congress (and/or the House and Senate individually) settle on, the time to act is now. With the two leading presidential contenders not exactly known for their commitment to transparency, there can be no doubt that the next administration will see a continuation, if not an escalation, of these problems.
Neither is there any reason to wait on the outcome of the appellate process in COGR v. Lynch. The briefing schedule is rather leisurely: appellant’s brief is due October 6, appellee’s brief is due December 20, and any reply brief is not due until January 17, 2017. By the time briefing is complete, it seems likely that the case may be overtaken by events, and I would guess that the D.C. Circuit will never reach the merits of the case. In any event, Congress cannot afford to leave its institutional prerogatives in the hands of the courts.