BLAG’s Authority to Represent the House in Court

On February 11, 2019, the new General Counsel of the House, Douglas N. Letter, filed an amicus brief in U.S. Dept of Commerce v. State of New York, the case that challenges the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. A federal district court ruled that the addition of the question violated the Administrative Procedure Act, and the Solicitor General sought a writ of certiorari before judgment from the Supreme Court. Letter’s brief argues that the district court’s decision is correct and urges the Court, should it decide to hear the case, to do so promptly in order to avoid disruption or delay in the census. (The Court has now agreed to hear the case on an expedited basis, with argument scheduled for late April).

I have nothing to say, at least at the moment, about the merits of this dispute, but I do have an observation about the caption of the brief, which is styled “Brief of Amicus Curiae United States House of Representatives in Support of Respondents.” This caption took me by surprise because during my time in the House General Counsel’s Office amicus briefs reflecting House institutional positions were filed in the name of the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG), rather than in the name of the House itself (unless the House actually voted on the matter, which rarely if ever happened).

It turns out that I had somehow overlooked a small but potentially important change to House rules which took place in 2015 at the outset of the 114th Congress. House Rule II(8), which provides the authority for the House Office of General Counsel, was amended to include the following subparagraph (b):

There is established a Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group composed of the Speaker and the majority and minority leaderships. Unless otherwise provided by the House, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group speaks for, and articulates the institutional position of, the House in all litigation matters.

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Who is a “Constituent”?: Lessons from the Menendez Case

A significant portion of a congressional office’s resources are devoted to performing “casework,” which the Congressional Research Service defines as “the response or services that Members of Congress provide to constituents who request assistance.” While this seems like a noncontroversial definition, it raises two more difficult questions: (1) who are the “constituents” for whom a Member of Congress may perform casework; and (2) when, if ever, is it appropriate for Members to perform casework for non-constituents. The House and Senate answer these questions somewhat differently. See CRS Report for Congress, Casework in a Congressional Office: Background, Rules, Laws, and Resources 3-4 n.13 (Jan. 3, 2017).

The House Ethics Manual notes that “[a]s a general matter . . .  a Member should not devote official resources to casework for individuals who live outside the district.” This admonition is based partly on the statute authorizing funding of the Members’ Representational Allowance, which provides that the MRA “’is to support the conduct of the official and representational duties of a Member of the House of Representatives with respect to the district from which the Member is elected.’” House Ethics Manual at 310 (quoting 2 U.S.C. §57b, now codified at 2 U.S.C. §5341(a)) (emphasis added by House Manual). The House Manual thus provides both a definition of “constituent” (one residing in the Member’s district) and an admonition against performing casework for non-constituents. See also Dennis F. Thompson, Ethics in Congress 91-92 (1995) (noting that the House Manual’s “sensible discussion” of casework is not explicitly endorsed in House or committee rules).

To be sure, the House guidance does not categorically prohibit providing assistance to non-constituents. The House Manual notes that there are circumstances in which it might be appropriate to do so, such as where “working for non-constituents on matters that are similar to those facing constituents may enable the Member better to serve his or her district.” House Ethics Manual at 310. Members may also vary on how they interpret this guidance. For example, the website of Representative Sean Duffy states flatly that “Members of Congress are prevented from assisting constituents residing outside their Congressional District.” Others may take a more nuanced view. Members are advised, however, that there is at least a strong presumption against performing casework for non-constituents.

In contrast, the Senate’s guidance on this issue is less clear. Senate Rule 43(2) provides that senators and staff may provide certain assistance with matters pending before government agencies “at the request of a petitioner.” The Senate Ethics Manual notes that “petitioners . . . may or may not be constituents,” but it does not elaborate on this observation or explain if or when it is appropriate for senators to provide assistance to non-constituents. See Senate Ethics Manual at 178. The Senate Manual discusses Rule 43 in the course of a chapter on “Constituent Service,” and its discussion largely assumes that senators will be providing assistance to constituents. Id. at 177-86. Nonetheless, CRS suggests the Senate guidance provides greater leeway to assist “nonconstituents who might seek congressional intervention in administrative proceedings [such as] foreign-born individuals seeking to emigrate to the United States, or a family or other interested party who live outside a Member’s constituency on behalf of a resident constituent.”

During the course of Senator Robert Menendez’s bribery trial, the prosecution argued that Menendez’s assistance to Dr. Melgen, a personal friend who resided in Florida, was improper or irregular because Melgen was not a constituent of the New Jersey senator. The court directed the parties to brief the meaning of “constituent” for purposes of instructing the jury.

Prosecutors filed a brief response stating that “Senator Menendez’s constituents are the New Jerseyans that he was elected to represent in the United States Senate.” Menendez’s lawyers, however, argued that there was not a single definition of “constituent.” They acknowledged “Dr. Melgen was a citizen of Florida, not New Jersey, and [therefore] was not Senator Melendez’s electoral constituent.” (emphasis in original). They contended, however, that Menendez’s “constituents” were not limited to electoral constituents.

According to Menendez’s legal team, “no law, custom, or congressional precedent supports the prosecution’s suggestion that a legislator cannot advocate on behalf of someone outside the legislator’s electoral constituency.” Moreover, “as advances in technology, travel, and communication (particularly the Internet) have created greater interconnectedness throughout the citizenry, political constituencies based on ideology, cultural ties, and other criteria—as well as these constituencies’ financial support—have outstripped the geographic boundaries of any given State or District.” Thus, it is increasingly common, they suggest, for legislators to represent “political constituencies” and not merely electoral ones.

In particular, “[r]acial and ethnic constituencies have . . . long played a key role in nationalized, non-electoral constituencies.” Thus, because Senator Menendez is “one of the only Senators of Latino heritage,” he regularly “advocates for Latinos across the country on a range of issues from immigration reform to discrimination.” He also “has felt a special obligation to help Hispanic-Americans—no matter where they live.” (This obligation apparently extended to helping Dr. Melgen, a Hispanic-American, with respect to his personal and business interests, such as intervening on his behalf when a federal agency found the doctor had overbilled Medicare by $8.9 million.)

Finally, Menendez’s lawyers contended that “Senate Rules do not support the view that a Senator’s duties are confined to electoral constituencies.” Pointing to Rule 43’s broad reference to “petitioners,” they note that nothing in the rule “defines ‘constituent’ or restricts a Senator’s duties to geographic constituents.”

For purposes of the criminal trial, the defense’s ultimate point was that the meaning of “constituent” only mattered to the extent it was relevant to the senator’s state of mind, and therefore it was a question of fact for the jury to decide whether Menendez believed he was assisting a constituent (as opposed to providing favors in exchange for the personal gifts and campaign contributions he had received from Melgen). Thus, it really did not matter whether Menendez’s understanding of Senate rules on constituent service was accurate so long as it was what he believed.

However, Menendez’s conduct was subsequently considered by the Senate Ethics Committee, which issued this letter of admonition to the senator on April 26, 2018. Somewhat surprisingly, though, the committee did not criticize Menendez’s understanding of constituent service. Instead, it stated:

[T]he Committee understands that you are committed to assisting constituents. Indeed, the Committee has long recognized that “[r]esponding to inquiries of petitioners and assisting them before executive or independent government officials and agencies” is an “appropriate exercise of the representational function of each Member of Congress, as well as an important function of congressional oversight.” Your assistance to Dr. Melgen, however, went well beyond Senate norms. You took action, over the course of several years, on behalf of one specific individual who repeatedly gave you many valuable gifts and who was also among your closest friends, which included direct contact with officials at the highest levels of government.

Letter of Admonition at 3 (citation omitted). This passage does not make any reference to the fact that Melgen did not reside in New Jersey. Arguably, therefore, it implicitly suggests that the committee accepted Senator Menendez’s theory of “political constituencies,” including the idea that a senator may appropriately choose to provide assistance to out-of-state individuals based on race or ethnicity (even with respect to issues unrelated to either).  If this is an accurate interpretation of the Senate Ethics Committee’s position, it suggests that the gulf between House and Senate “norms” on this question has grown even wider.

 

Can a House Committee Subpoena Clinton’s Server?

On the Megyn Kelly show last night, Judge Napolitano stated that Secretary Clinton’s server could not be subpoenaed by a House committee, but only by the House itself, because the committee lacks the power to subpoena “tangible things.” This echoes views expressed by Trey Gowdy, chairman of the Benghazi select committee, who claimed that his committee could not subpoena the server and suggested that whether even the House could subpoena it is an “open constitutional question.”

The Napolitano/Gowdy position strikes me as overly cautious. Admittedly, the question of whether a congressional subpoena can reach “tangible things” very rarely arises, and I am not aware of any precedent or even internal congressional guidance on the point. The quite comprehensive Congressional Oversight Manual, for example, does not seem to mention the issue. However, as described below, it is not necessary to resolve this general question to conclude confidently in favor of a House committee’s authority in the circumstances presented.

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Some Concluding Thoughts on House Delegates

Our review of the House’s treatment of delegates shows (1) the House has traditionally seen the line between debating and voting as the demarcation of appropriate delegate participation; (2) the proper role of delegates has also been described as merely advisory in nature; (3) participation in select and later standing committees has been viewed as falling within the proper debating/advisory function of delegates; (4) since 1970 the House has also permitted delegates to vote on committees and this practice no longer appears to be controversial; and (5) with respect to the constitutional limits of delegate participation, the House has never articulated or recognized a distinction between delegates and other non-members.

The issue of delegate voting in the Committee of the Whole remains a flashpoint of constitutional controversy. The House first permitted such voting in 1993 at the start of the 103d Congress, when the Democrats were in the majority, and has allowed it in subsequent congresses when the Democrats were in control. The Republicans, on the other hand, maintain that such voting is unconstitutional, and it has not been permitted during periods when they were in control.

As the Michel v. Anderson litigation made apparent, the constitutional disagreement between the two parties is actually quite narrow. Because the House Democrats recognized the new rule “came perilously close” to “granting delegates a vote in the House,” they provided for a revote in situations where the delegates would otherwise determine the outcome, and the House Counsel in Michel argued that the revote made the rule “only symbolic.” 14 F.3d at 632. In other words, because the delegates could not influence the outcome directly, their votes were merely advisory.

The Michel litigants vigorously disputed whether the new rule actually gave the delegates some influence over legislative outcomes greater than what they had before. But this was the wrong issue to focus on. Nothing in the Constitution prohibits either house from giving non-members significant influence over the shaping of legislation, and in some cases congressional rules give non-members (e.g., the president in fast track legislation) greater influence than that enjoyed by any individual member.

The real question in Michel should have been whether the Constitution prohibits giving a formal, even if meaningless, vote to non-members in the Committee of the Whole. All parties and the court seemed to agree that the Constitution bars giving any non-member, including delegates, a formal vote in the House itself, even if that vote were purely symbolic. And they also agreed that no non-member other than delegates could be given such a symbolic vote even in the Committee of the Whole.

The notion that there is some unwritten constitutional principle that embodies these distinctions seems faintly ridiculous, and, as we have discussed, the D.C. Circuit offered no real justification for them. So while there is no definitive answer to the question of whether the Constitution prohibits giving delegates a vote in the Committee of the Whole (subject to a revote), we can say with confidence the following: (1) such a vote is contrary to House precedent prior to 1993, including the 1794 precedent that sheds direct light on the intent of the Framers; (2) given the fact that the Committee of the Whole includes all members of the House and is largely indistinguishable from the House itself in its operation, a delegate vote involves different and more significant constitutional concerns than such a vote in a standing committee; and (3) any principled resolution of the issue would have to apply to any non-member, so that allowing delegates to vote in Committee of the Whole would open the door to a rule allowing mayors to vote as well.

In light of these conclusions, one has to wonder whether this game is worth the candle. Is it worth rending the constitutional fabric to give the delegates a symbolic vote that, at the end of the day, does nothing to benefit their constituents? Surely the House could find a way to increase the influence of delegates on issues of importance to DC and the territories without raising this type of constitutional doubt. Although Judge Greene’s claim that delegates traded their right to vote on committees for other concessions in 1871 appears apocryphal, it’s not a bad suggestion for how the House should proceed today.

Delegate Norton’s idea of taking a fresh look at this controversy would be a good start. The House should do so.

The D.C. Circuit and the “Would-be Congressmen”

Delegate Norton cites the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Michel v. Anderson, 14 F.3d 623 (D.C. Cir. 1994), for the proposition that delegates may be authorized to vote in the Committee of the Whole, but a close examination of this decision reveals it to be poorly reasoned and internally incoherent.

The court advances the following propositions: (1) delegates may serve and vote on House standing committees; (2) non-members other than delegates may not serve or vote on House standing committees; (3) it would likely be unconstitutional to give delegates a true vote in the Committee of the Whole; (4) because the revote provision in House rules makes the delegate vote in the Committee of the Whole largely symbolic, it is not unconstitutional; (5) nevertheless, giving even such a symbolic vote in the Committee of the Whole to non-members other than delegates would violate the Constitution; and (6) giving a symbolic vote in the House itself to anyone, including delegates, would violate the Constitution.

As Professor Currie notes, these propositions are supported by little more than fiat.

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The Role of Delegates on House Committees

Returning to the role played by delegates in the House, today we will look at their history on committees.

In contrast to the initial debate over admitting territorial delegates to the House, there appears to have been little or no controversy in the early Congresses about allowing delegates to serve on committees. James White was appointed to a select committee in 1795, and William Henry Harrison, the first delegate from the Northwest Territory (and future president), also served on a number of select committees. Indeed, in December 1799, Harrison was appointed to chair a select committee established to inquire into any necessary alterations “in the laws relating to the sale of lands in the Territory Northwest of the Ohio.” 6 Annals of Cong. 527.

The most controversial issue has been whether these delegates may constitutionally cast votes in committee, and whether this would be inconsistent with the House’s longstanding view that delegates may debate, but not vote.

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More Fun with House Guests: Admitting Cabinet Officials to a Seat in Congress

A recent post by Professor Gerard Magliocca brought to my attention a matter which sheds further light on how the House of Representatives has viewed participation by non-members in its proceedings. In 1864, a House select committee favorably reported a bill providing that the heads of the Executive Departments “shall be entitled to occupy seats on the floor of the House of Representatives, with the right to participate in debate upon matters relating to the business of their respective departments, under such rules as may be prescribed by the House.”

This proposal was inspired at least in part by Justice Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution.  In a passage quoted at some length by the House committee, Story commented: “If it would not have been safe to trust the heads of departments, as representatives, to the choice of the people as their constituents, it would have been at least some gain to have allowed them seats, like territorial delegates, in the House of Representatives, where they might freely debate, without a title to vote.”

The House report reflects the same view of participation by non-members as won the day during the debate over the admission of James White seventy years earlier. The report states:

The committee entertains no doubt of the power of Congress to pass this resolution. . . . [M]embers of the Cabinet do not by this resolution become members of the House; nor are they invested with any of the powers belonging to members, except to enter on the floor and to participate to a limited extent in debate. The right of each house to admit persons, not members, on its floor, and to allow them to debate any measure which may be pending, is too clear for argument. . . . It is exercised at every session when by resolution a contestant is allowed the privileges of the floor, and the right to debate the questions involved in the contest. It is exercised whenever action is had under the provisions of the general law of 1818, taken from the provisions of each special law for the organization of a Territory, passed prior to that date, that delegates from Territories shall be elected “for the same term of two years for which members of the House of Representatives of the United States are elected, and in that House each of the said delegates shall have a seat with the right of debating, but not of voting.”

In other words, the House’s authority to admit non-members, either for a limited time and subject or to a seat that continues for the entire Congress, extends to all persons, not merely to territorial delegates. Just as the House concluded in the debate over James White’s admission, the limitation is not the credentials of the persons who can be so admitted, but the fact that such persons may only debate, not vote.

As a side note, the legislation to admit cabinet members was never acted on by the full house, but later was introduced in the Senate. Many years later, as Professor Magliocca reports, President Taft picked up on the idea and included in his 1912 state of the union message a proposal that cabinet officers be provided seats in both the House and Senate. He recognized, though somewhat lamented, the fact that these officers could not vote:

Objection is made that the members of the administration having no vote could exercise no power on the floor of the House, and could not assume that attitude of authority and control which the English parliamentary Government have and which enables them to meet the responsibilities the English system thrusts upon them. I agree that in certain respects it would be more satisfactory if members of the Cabinet could at the same time be Members of both Houses, with voting power, but this is impossible under our system.

Needless to say, this proposal also never made it anywhere, although the closely related idea of providing a parliamentary-style “question time” in Congress for cabinet officials or even the president surfaces from time to time.

Membership Has its Privileges: Participation of DC and Territorial Delegates in House Proceedings

Last week, on the opening day of the new Congress, DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton argued that the House should adopt a rule allowing her and territorial delegates (representing Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa) to vote in the Committee of the Whole. Since 1993, the House has had such a rule during periods in which Democrats held the majority. Norton also asked for a special committee to study the issue of delegate voting.

Following the House’s decision to reject her requests, Norton stated: “The audacity of stripping a vote for taxpaying Americans won fairly by vote of the House and approved by the federal courts was outdone today by the refusal of the House majority to restore the vote of District citizens.”

The federal court decisions referred to in Norton’s statement are Michel v. Anderson, 14 F.3d 623 (D.C. Cir. 1994) and the lower court decision by Judge Harold Greene in the same case. Both these courts upheld the practice of allowing delegates to vote in the Committee of the Whole, but only on the ground that the re-vote portion of the rule (requiring, in essence, that the votes of the delegates would not count whenever they would be determinative of the result) made it constitutionally inoffensive. Judge Silberman’s opinion for the appellate court described the vote given to the delegates as “largely symbolic,” while Judge Greene was more blunt, calling it “meaningless.”

These opinions also relied heavily on House practice and precedent with regard to participation by delegates and non-members in its proceedings, but they appear to have overlooked some of the most important precedent. In my next few posts, I will discuss the relevant history and how the House has looked at this constitutional question.

Here is what I tentatively think these posts will show:

  • Because the Constitution provides that “the House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States,” delegates from DC and the territories, which are not states, cannot be members of the House.
  • Historically, the House has viewed it as constitutionally permissible to allow non-members the right to participate in debate, so long as they cannot vote.
  • More recent practice has allowed delegates to vote in standing committees. This practice can be squared with the traditional view, I believe, because the activities of committees are most reasonably viewed as being on the “debating” side of the debating/voting line. Voting on certain matters, such as issuing subpoenas or holding witnesses in contempt, however, may raise additional issues.
  • The real disagreement between House Republicans and Democrats has come down to voting in the Committee of the Whole. This disagreement is much narrower than it might appear (or Norton’s rhetoric might suggest) because the Democrats only gave the delegates a symbolic vote precisely because of concerns about the constitutionality of the practice. The Republicans presumably believe that giving non-members a vote in the Committee of the Whole is a constitutional impropriety, even if it is effectively harmless error.

Having said all this, I think Norton’s idea of having a committee (it could be a standing committee such as Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution) look at this issue makes sense. The principle is that delegates can debate, but not vote. But the power to debate can be quite meaningful (as illustrated by the Senate filibuster), while the power to vote at issue here is merely symbolic. Perhaps there is ground for a compromise by, for example, enhancing the authority of the delegates to debate matters that specifically impact their constituents.

Is a Lawsuit Really the House’s Only Remaining Option?

In response to the argument that the House needed access to the courts in order to protect the separation of powers and its constitutional prerogatives, Representative Slaughter noted “the Founding Fathers gave to the legislative branch the weapons to defend itself without running to the court.” She then proceeded to list these tools of self-defense, including the power to write new laws, repeal old laws, disapprove regulations and attach riders to appropriations bills. She also noted the specific powers invested in the Senate, such as its ability to “put nominees’ feet to the fire” during the advice and consent process. Finally, she cited the House’s constitutional authorities with respect to the executive: “we investigate, hold oversight hearings and we sometimes impeach.”

There is no question that these are powerful tools, potentially powerful anyway, and I think I have already made clear my view that a lawsuit is a very poor option for the House to employ. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see how the House could effectively use some of these methods to address the employer mandate delay. Obviously, it cannot use the Senate’s authorities. It is also hard to see how it could rewrite the law (even assuming the Senate and the President’s cooperation) to remedy the problem. After all, the House does not object to the policy embodied in the employer mandate delay; it objects to the fact that the administration adopted the policy without congressional authorization. Indeed, one of the House’s “injuries” is that the administration opposed any congressional effort to change the law so as to authorize the action it was taking.

Most of the discussion of alternative remedies at the Rules Committee hearing revolved around the power of the purse. But no one explained exactly how the House might use the power of the purse in this situation. In the first place, the spending power is just political leverage; it works the same for policy disputes and legal disagreements. But the political leverage only works to the extent it relates to something the public really cares about; abstract institutional disputes between the branches will hardly qualify. Indeed, even when the public supports Congress’s goal, using the spending power as leverage is tricky. Congress wasn’t too successful in using the power of the purse to control the executive’s conduct of an unpopular war in the last administration, as Slaughter may recall.

Now I do like the Scalia/Ginsberg suggestion that funds for White House staff be cut off, and I wonder why the House doesn’t at least try something like that. Presumably the public wouldn’t be outraged by a reduction of the White House travel budget or the like. Maybe Congress is worried that the White House would demand a reduction in leg branch appropriations in return. In any event, using the appropriations process in this way would require majority support in both chambers, if not a supermajority sufficient to overcome a veto. And even if that existed (which it obviously does not), I am not sure how exactly it would be linked to the employer mandate delay.

So as a practical matter, I think the House is left with the unilateral authorities of investigation, oversight and impeachment. Investigation and oversight seem like appropriate responses because, as discussed in a prior post, further information about the decision-making process is needed to determine whether the House’s disagreement with the IRS is simply a garden-variety dispute over administrative law or whether it reflects a true invasion of the House’s constitutional authority

However, an ordinary committee investigation will not suffice here for at least two reasons. First, the Speaker has already made a decision to elevate this matter beyond a routine oversight issue, and he wants the House as a body to weigh in. If it were sent to a committee for investigation, it would just become one of many ongoing investigations and would quickly become bogged down in the partisan muck. Second, it is very likely that the administration would refuse to produce all (or perhaps any) information regarding the decision-making process on grounds of deliberative process, attorney-client and/or presidential communications privilege.

There is another way, though. The House has a well-established and time-honored method of obtaining important information from the executive branch. The resolution of inquiry is a privileged resolution that seeks information from the president or a department head. Although it is not uncommon for such resolutions to be introduced (CRS counts 290 from 1947 to 2011), most often in recent years by members of the minority party, the House has not adopted such a resolution since 1995.

A resolution of inquiry is not a “legal” device like a subpoena, but an assertion of the House’s role in the constitutional structure, which would seem to be what is called for under the circumstances. As CRS notes, “compliance by the executive branch with the House’s request for factual information in such a resolution is voluntary, resting largely on a sense of comity between co-equal branches of government and a recognition of the necessity for Congress to be well-informed as it legislates.”

A resolution of inquiry could be addressed to Secretary Lew, directing him to produce all documents related to the decision to delay the employer mandate. (A similar resolution could be directed to President Obama, although it is traditional that resolutions to the president “request” rather than “direct” the production of information).

Would such a resolution work? Possibly, but only if the House were united in the resolution. The question then is whether Representative Slaughter and her colleagues would support such a resolution. If they are sincere about wanting to protect the House’s institutional prerogatives, I don’t see why they would not. And if they refuse, at least the Speaker would have tried to use more traditional methods before proceeding with his lawsuit.

Of course, there is no legal penalty for refusing to comply with a resolution of inquiry. But if Secretary Lew were to refuse to comply with the resolution, the House would logically proceed to use its last constitutional tool, one where it exercises judicial and not merely legislative authority, namely an investigation into whether the Secretary should be impeached.