Marking Time on the Nunes Memo (with update)

In the past few days a lot of people (relatively speaking) have been reading this post (“Congressional Release of Classified Information and the Speech or Debate Clause”), which discusses the process by which the House and Senate intelligence committees may release classified information to the public. This spike in interest, I presume, relates to the vote yesterday of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) to release the “Nunes memo,” which details alleged abuses of the FISA process during the investigation of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 elections.

My prior posts on this subject have focused on the Senate (mostly in connection with the release of the “torture memo”, see here, here, here and here), but the House procedure is basically the same as that of the Senate, except that there is no requirement that HPSCI consult with or notify the chamber’s leadership. Thus, as provided by House Rule X(11)(g)(2)(B), HPSCI “may disclose publicly” the Nunes memo “after the expiration of a five-day period following the day on which notice of the vote to disclose is transmitted to the President,” unless in the interim the president objects in the manner specified by the rule.

As far as I can tell, the memo was not transmitted to the White House yesterday, so lets assume it will be transmitted today (note there is no requirement that HPSCI transmit the memo within a specified period of time). When will the five day period expire? If one counted every calendar day, it would expire at midnight on Sunday, February 4, and the memo could be released as early as Monday, February 5. Traditionally, however, the House considers Sunday to be a “dies non” so it will almost certainly not count for the computation. I am less clear on whether Saturday would be counted. Often House rules provide that Saturdays and legal holidays (as well as Sundays) are not counted for purposes of computing days, but there is no such express provision in the rule governing HPSCI’s release of information. So I am not sure whether the Parliamentarians will count Saturday or not. Depending on the answer, the memo would be releasable on Tuesday or Wednesday, unless an objection is received from the president.

What happens if the five days expire with no objection? The rule says that HPSCI “may” disclose the information at that point. It does not say that it must do so. But who decides whether the memo will actually be released? The rule says the information may be released by the “select committee.” It could therefore be argued that an individual member still cannot release the memo until HPSCI itself takes some further action. This might be interpreted to require that the committee take another vote, but since the rule elsewhere specifies other votes the committee must take, it seems likely that no formal vote is required. The Parliamentarians may rule that the chair can release the memo on behalf of the committee, but no one else may do so without the permission of the chair or another vote of the committee.

What if the White House asks for more time to evaluate the memo? Nothing in the rule expressly allows for the five day period to be extended. If the chair controls the release, he can agree to delay until the White House has an opportunity to respond. But once the five days expire, it would appear that the memo is releasable, even if it is not actually released. Any objection received after the expiration of the five days is (at least arguably) ineffective. Thus, if any faction of HPSCI (or the House) wanted the memo released, they could argue that the president’s objections were invalid under the rule.

[update: the above assumes that the transmission of the memo and “notice of the vote to disclose” occur simultaneously. This makes a certain amount of sense since it would be pointless to transmit the notice of the vote without informing the president of what is to be disclosed, given that the purpose of the five day period is for the president to decide whether to object to disclosure. But it is possible that HPSCI could transmit the memo to the president without a formal notice of the vote to disclose, thereby delaying the commencement of the five day period. So this represents another uncertainty as to when exactly the memo can/will be released publicly.]

Sexual Harassment and the Office of Congressional Ethics

As you are no doubt aware, there has been a great deal of controversy in the past few months about Congress’s handling of internal employment issues, most notably sexual harassment claims. It is less likely you are aware that Congress has actually moved rather expeditiously to address the problem. Last week a bill to do just that was introduced in the House by Representatives Gregg Harper and Robert Brady, respectively the chair and ranking member of the Committee on House Administration. The bill is titled the “Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act,” H.R. 4822. (Someone could have put more effort into this “short title,” but we will refer to it simply as “CARA.”).

The Committee on House Administration has jurisdiction over House labor and employment issues, including the application of labor and employment laws to Congress through the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 (CAA). In the wake of widespread publicity about the handling of sexual harassment claims in Congress, the committee held hearings (November 14 and December 7, 2017) to address perceived weaknesses in the CAA and the need to prevent sexual harassment in the congressional workplace. The committee heard from various witnesses, including representatives of the Office of Compliance (OOC), the congressional agency responsible for administering and enforcing the CAA.

CARA addresses the problems identified in these hearings through various measures to better protect congressional employees from sexual harassment and other employment violations, including (1) establishing an Office of Employee Advocacy in the House to advise and assist employees with regard to rights and claims under the CAA; (2) authorizing the OOC General Counsel to conduct investigations of sexual harassment and other employment claims; (3) holding representatives and senators personally liable for awards and settlements arising from employment discrimination (including sexual harassment) or retaliation where their individual misconduct was involved; and (4) requiring the OOC to publish more detailed information about awards and settlements under the CAA.

My purpose here is not to analyze CARA’s proposed reforms or take a position on the bill. I merely observe that, on its face, CARA seems to be a textbook example of how “regular order” is supposed to work. Congress identifies a problem, holds hearings, and proposes a legislative solution, preferably reflecting a broad consensus within the committee of jurisdiction. CARA in fact is cosponsored by every member of the Committee on House Administration. It also very bipartisan, with 14 Republicans and 20 Democrats listed as sponsors or co-sponsors. Among them are the chair and ranking member of the House Ethics Committee and two of the most outspoken House members on the issue of sexual harassment, Representatives Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Barbara Comstock (R-VA).

(Note: I have known Comstock since we both worked on the Hill in the 1990s and have supported her in races for state legislature and Congress).

Of course, the introduction of CARA is far from the end of the legislative process. The bill is now referred back to the Committee on House Administration and three other committees with some jurisdiction over its provisions (Ethics, Oversight and Government Reform and Ways & Means) where it can be further studied, amended and eventually marked up for consideration by the full House. There will be plenty of opportunities for further deliberation and changes in committee, not to mention (if it gets that far) on the House floor and in the Senate.

All of which makes it a little odd that the immediate reaction in the ethics/reform community to CARA was not applause (though my understanding is that it is generally supportive of the bill), but outrage directed at a single provision, Section 407, which is deemed to represent an insidious effort by the “House leadership” (though what the House leadership has to do with this, I am not sure) “to purposefully defang the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) and undermine its role in upholding high ethical standards in the House of Representatives.”

So what exactly does Section 407 do? Continue reading “Sexual Harassment and the Office of Congressional Ethics”

Wright on Executive Privilege with Some Additional Thoughts Hazarded by Stern

Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist in the Trump White House, has refused to answer questions from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) regarding his time in the White House and on the presidential transition team. Bannon claims these subjects may implicate executive privilege and is deferring to the White House counsel’s office as to whether the privilege will be invoked.

I was going to post some comments on this issue, but almost everything I was going to say is admirably covered by Professor Andy Wright here. Wright’s key points are (1) Bannon’s status as a former government official is irrelevant to the legal merits of the privilege claim, though it could impact how the matter is resolved procedurally (more on that in a minute); (2) the privilege belongs to the president, not to the subordinate official; (3) it is thus appropriate to provide the president, with the advice of White House counsel and other executive branch lawyers, an opportunity to decide whether to invoke the privilege formally; (4) if negotiations do not resolve the issue, HPSCI must move forward with a formal contempt process; (5) while it may ultimately be decided that executive privilege does not attach to presidential transitions, the question at this point is an open one; and (6) even if the privilege does apply, HPSCI will still have strong arguments in favor of requiring Bannon to answer some or all of its questions.

One point of qualification. While I agree with Wright that issues of executive privilege have to be decided on a question-by-question basis, the burden is not on Bannon to make sure that specific questions get asked. In other words, if Bannon issued a “blanket refusal [to answer] about all swaths of time during his transition and White House roles,” as Wright indicates, it is still incumbent on HPSCI to make a record of the specific questions it wants answered. Failure to do so could undermine its legal position or delay resolution of the merits should the dispute reach the courts.

This brings us to the procedure HPSCI should employ to resolve this matter. As Wright notes, there are three avenues available (criminal contempt, civil litigation and inherent contempt). Each has its drawbacks and none is guaranteed to work (or work in a timely fashion) even if one assumes HPSCI would win the executive privilege issue on the merits.

As we discussed in connection with the Comey matter, however, the procedure followed with regard to a former official might differ from the norm. If Bannon takes the position that he will abide by HPSCI’s rulings on executive privilege unless otherwise directed by a federal court, the burden would be on the executive branch to bring a civil action and obtain a speedy order (presumably a TRO) directing Bannon not to testify.

On the other hand, Bannon might say that he will abide by the president’s instructions even if it means being held in contempt by HPSCI and the House. If so, the House could consider employing the rarest form of testimonial compulsion, inherent contempt. In this procedure, Bannon would be arrested by the Sergeant at Arms and brought before the bar of the House. If he continues to refuse to testify, the House could remand him into the custody of the Sergeant at Arms until he changes his mind (or convinces a court to release him on a habeas petition). This is a drastic remedy, which has not been employed by the House in about a century. But if the House is serious about reasserting its institutional prerogatives, there could hardly be a more inviting target than Mr. Bannon.

Anyway, there is something about incarcerating Bannon in the basement of the Capitol that seems like where 2018 is going, don’t you think?

P.S. RIP Geoffrey Hazard.