“Its Weird Being in an Organization that is Less Popular than Colonoscopies and Nickelback”

So said yesterday Representative Derek Kilmer (D-WA), the chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, a new House committee  created at the beginning of the 116th Congress by a vote of 418-12. It is a bipartisan committee with 12 members equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. Kilmer’s vice-chair is Representative Tom Graves (R-GA).

The select committee’s mission is to fix Congress so that it can be at least as popular as Nickelback and as useful as colonoscopies. More precisely, the House charged it with studying and developing “recommendations on modernizing Congress,” including recommendations on seven specific topics:

      1. rules to promote a more modern and efficient Congress:
      2. procedures, including the schedule and calendar;
      3. policies to develop the next generation of leaders;
      4. staff recruitment, diversity, retention, and compensation and benefits;
      5. administrative efficiencies, including purchasing, travel, outside services, and shared administrative staff;
      6. technology and innovation; and
      7. the work of the House Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards.

In order to formally adopt a recommendation, two-thirds of the select committee’s members must agree to it.

The select committee has a limited lifespan. It is required to issue a final report by the end of the year and will end its existence (barring further action by the House) on February 1, 2020. It is authorized to make recommendations on a rolling basis and is supposed to issue interim status reports every 90 days.

There is no shortage of ideas for the select committee to consider. LegBranch.org has created this page with an excellent compilation of  proposals and resources that will be useful for the committee and others interested in congressional reform. I have a few ideas myself (see, for example, here and here). But first the committee has to get started. As of yet, it has not held or scheduled any hearings, nor has it apparently hired any staff.

Chairman Kilmer made his remarks at a Bipartisan Policy Center event yesterday (his discussion with Michele Stockwell of BPC starts at about the 12 and a half minute mark on the video). Not a great deal of news in the discussion. I was interested to know that he wants to look at best practices from the state legislatures. He is also not a big fan of the motion to recommit, though I doubt there will be any bipartisan agreement on reforming that procedure.

But in any event, nothing can happen until the select committee gets going. Until then, colonoscopies and Nickelback will keep extending their lead.

Some Preliminary Thoughts on the House Judiciary Document Requests

Yesterday the House Judiciary Committee issued document requests to 81 individuals, government agencies and other organizations. The cover letter from Chairman Nadler explains that the committee “is investigating a number of actions that threaten our nation’s longstanding commitment to the rule of law, including allegations of obstruction of justice, public corruption, and other abuses of power.” As Spencer Ackerman put it more colorfully, the committee wants the files of “anyone who might know anything about any allegation about wrongdoing by President Trump, encompassing everything from obstruction of justice to collusion with Russia to paying off potential ex-mistresses.”

At the outset it should be noted that these are document requests, not subpoenas, and therefore do not impose any legal obligation on the recipients, with two caveats. First, the requests put the recipients on notice that the documents are relevant to and being sought in a congressional proceeding, thus establishing or helping to establish one or more elements of obstruction of Congress should any of this evidence later be altered or destroyed.

Second, although there is no legal enforcement mechanism, by practice and policy it is expected that government agencies will respond in good faith to congressional requests for information. See Letter Opinion for the Counsel to the President from Curtis E. Gannon, Acting Asst Atty Gen. for the Off. of Legal Counsel, at 3 (May 1, 2017) (“Upon receipt of a properly authorized oversight request, the Executive Branch’s longstanding policy has been to engage in the accommodation process by supplying the requested information ‘to the fullest extent consistent with the constitutional and statutory obligations of the Executive Branch.'”) (quoting the Reagan memorandum of 1982); see also Letter from Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley to President Donald Trump at 6 (June 7, 2017) (“the Executive Branch should work to cooperate in good faith with all congressional requests to the fullest extent possible”). It is therefore likely the government recipients (the White House, Department of Justice, FBI, and General Services Administration) will provide some sort of timely response to the committee’s requests.

We can also anticipate, however, that these agencies will contend that the requests are inconsistent with their “constitutional and statutory obligations” in several respects. A number of the requests implicate matters (national security and foreign policy, exercise of the pardon power, discussions between high level advisors and the president personally) that traditionally lie at the heart of the doctrine of executive privilege. See generally Mark J. Rozell, Executive Privilege 49-61 (1994). It seems doubtful that the Trump administration will produce these materials without a fight.

The Judiciary committee has tried to forestall this objection by limiting the initial production to documents already produced to other investigative bodies, such as the Special Counsel’s office and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. The administration, however, can be expected to argue that sharing information within the executive branch does not waive the privilege with regard to congressional requests.

The administration will also probably contend that the committee’s requests impinge upon open criminal investigations and violate grand jury secrecy rules. In particular, the document requests to the Justice Department and FBI would seem to encompass materials that these organizations or their components have gathered in their investigative capacities. If so, the administration may argue that the committee is essentially trying to obtain the work product of the Special Counsel and the SDNY.

Another category of recipient to keep an eye on consists of former Trump administration officials, including former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, White House Counsel Don McGahn and many others. These individuals are in a tricky situation. They may have varying degrees of interest in cooperating with the committee, but they are unlikely to want to produce information over the administration’s objections. On the other hand, they probably do not want risk contempt (a possibility if and when the committee issues subpoenas) or incur enormous legal fees by fighting with the committee either.

I suggested on Twitter, half jokingly, that Tom Bossert (the former homeland security advisor and one of the lucky recipients) should interplead the committee and the administration. In all seriousness, though, the former officials might want to consider bringing an action to ask a court to declare whether they should abide by the instructions of the White House or those of the committee. Such an action would certainly be more meritorious (which is not to say necessarily successful) than Jim Comey’s lawsuit against the committee last December.

The remaining 60 or so recipients are individuals and organizations with a variety of interests and legal postures vis a vis the committee’s requests. One (as far as I know) is the president’s personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, who will presumably assert attorney-client privilege in response to most if not of all of the committee’s requests. Others are foreigners (e.g., Julian Assange, Wikileaks) who will probably ignore the committee’s requests unless it can figure out how to subject them to legal compulsion. Each recipient will have to make a decision about whether and how much to cooperate with the committee based on his/her/its individual situation and interests.

The only thing we can say for sure is there will be no shortage of congressional legal issues to discuss.