Recalibrating the “Subpoena Cannon”

(I know some artillery expert from Quora is going to correct my title but you get the idea).

To continue the martial metaphors, the House’s investigatory offensive against the Trump administration is meeting stiff resistance on all fronts or, one might say, running into a stone wall. The administration is refusing to cooperate with any oversight or investigation it considers to be hostile or partisan (so, basically all of them). This noncooperation can take the form of refusing to comply with document requests or subpoenas outright, simply ignoring them, delaying a final response (as in the case of the Ways & Means committee request to the treasury secretary for the Trump tax returns), placing conditions on compliance (as where the White House is refusing to allow witnesses to testify at congressional depositions unless a representative from the counsel’s office is also allowed to attend), instructing or encouraging former executive officials or others not to comply with congressional demands (as the administration apparently plans to do with respect to the Judiciary committee subpoena to former White House counsel Don McGahn), and even bringing legal action to prevent third parties from providing information to Congress (as discussed in my last post).

The situation has given rise to much handwringing in Congress, where House Democrats are predictably characterizing the administration’s actions as “massive, unprecedented obstruction.” The frustration is entirely understandable, but I agree with Andy Wright that it is a bit overwrought to describe the situation as a “constitutional crisis,” particularly at this early stage. The basic problems are ones faced by Congress in every administration, even though the scope of the investigations and sheer number of information disputes is unusual. Moreover, while it may be accurate to describe the administration as engaged in unprecedented stonewalling, it should also be remembered that the Mueller report provides Congress with an exceptional degree of visibility into the areas of the administration about which it is most concerned.

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that the House faces a difficult set of challenges in responding to the administration’s recalcitrance because there is no clearly established mechanism for enforcing congressional subpoenas against the executive branch. If an executive branch official refuses to testify or produce documents based on the assertion of executive privilege at the direction of the president, the Justice Department has long maintained that it will not (and constitutionally may not) prosecute the official for contempt of Congress. See, e.g.,  Response to Congressional Requests for Information Regarding Decisions made Under the Independent Counsel Act, 10 OLC 68, 85 (Apr. 28, 1986). Thus, while a House committee may vote to hold this official in contempt and report the contempt to the full House, which in turn may adopt a resolution referring the matter to the U.S. attorney pursuant to 2 U.S.C. § 194, the U.S. attorney will not present the matter to a grand jury and thus the House’s action will be largely symbolic.

It should be noted, however, that this calculus is arguably somewhat different in the case of a former executive branch official. While it is clear that the executive branch would contend that a former official should obey the president’s instructions as to the assertion of executive privilege, and it is highly likely that it would employ similar reasoning to avoid presenting any contempt citation to a grand jury, there is at least some possibility that a future administration might reach a different conclusion, placing the former official in legal jeopardy. At the very least, the former official might worry that having a formal citation of contempt by the House on the record might generate legal expenses or other collateral consequences down the road.

With criminal contempt largely useless, then, the House is considering other options, including inherent contempt. Again, as readers well know, this is the process by which the House (or Senate) can send the Sergeant at Arms to take a recalcitrant witness into custody, bring him before the bar of the house to explain his refusal to testify, and remand him to custody until he changes his mind. Although members of Congress are starting to make noises about reviving this process (something that happens periodically whenever there is divided government), these threats are not very credible in light of the fact that the House has not used it in about a century.

To solve that problem, the estimable Mort Rosenberg has proposed a House rule that would use fines, rather than arrest and detention, as the primary means of forcing executive branch officials to comply with congressional subpoenas. Judiciary committee chairman Nadler has apparently raised this as a way “to put teeth in his party’s numerous investigative inquiries, many of which Trump officials are stonewalling or simply ignoring.”

Not surprisingly, the Justice Department has suggested that it would be unconstitutional to employ inherent contempt against executive branch officials in situations where (it claims) separation of powers principles prohibit the use of criminal contempt. See 10 OLC at 86. There are also obvious practical problems that would be involved with attempting to detain an executive official. See id. (“it seems most unlikely that Congress would dispatch the Sergeant-at-Arms to arrest and imprison an Executive Branch official who claimed executive privilege”). The House’s “cannon” is, after all, only metaphorical, and the executive branch has the Sergeant at Arms and the Capitol Police pretty well out-gunned. Imposing fines instead of imprisonment might mitigate, or at least postpone, this problem, but if the House wanted to have this option available it should have included it in the rules package that was adopted at the beginning of the congress.

Another suggestion is that the House could use political remedies, such as the appropriations process, to punish officials or agencies that refuse to comply with congressional demands for information. Professor Josh Chafetz is a big proponent of this technique. It seems to me that this can be effective when the resistance to congressional demands is coming from the agency level, but it is much harder to do when it is coming from the president (and harder still with this president). To the extent the House has leverage in the appropriations process vis a vis the Senate and the president, it is likely to use it for higher priority items than winning disputes over information access. Put another way, I don’t see the House shutting down the government to get an unredacted copy of the Mueller report.

This leaves what is most commonly thought of as the House’s best legal remedy, a civil action seeking declaratory or injunctive relief to enforce its right to obtain information. Most commonly, this would take the form of an action to enforce a subpoena, but other actions are also possible. For example, the Ways & Means committee could bring suit to enforce its statutory rights to obtain tax return information under 26 U.S.C. § 6103(f). Note that such an action would be analogous to an action to enforce congressional rights to information under 5 U.S.C. § 2954 (commonly known as the Rule of Seven), which is at issue in the case of Cummings v. Murphy currently pending in the D.C. Circuit (though likely presenting a stronger case for congressional standing than Cummings if the committee’s action were authorized by House resolution).

Civil enforcement of subpoenas presents its own set of challenges, namely (1) the absence of any clearly defined process for bringing such actions and unsettled legal issues of justiciability; (2) the fact that courts do not like to be in the middle of political disputes between the legislative and executive branches; and (3) the length of time that it would take to obtain a final enforceable court order, particularly because even if the House prevails at the district court level there will be inevitable appeals to the D.C. Circuit and the Supreme Court. Some of these problems could have been mitigated had the House adopted a brilliant proposed rule (still my blog) on civil enforcement of subpoenas, but alas it failed to do so. Nevertheless, civil enforcement remains the most promising avenue for legal vindication of the House’s constitutional rights. Continue reading “Recalibrating the “Subpoena Cannon””