At legbranch.com, the website of the Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group, I have a post regarding the House Judiciary Committee staffers who allegedly worked on the Trump travel/immigration executive order during the transition.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As you have no doubt heard, two circuit courts issued divergent opinions yesterday on the same administrative law question, namely the validity of an IRS rule extending tax subsidies to health insurance purchased on the federal exchange. These decisions nicely illustrate the point I was making in my last post regarding the nature of administrative law decisions and the extent to which a decision on the merits of the employer mandate delay would or would not vindicate the House’s constitutional interests.
In Halbig v. Burwell, the D.C. Circuit held the IRS rule invalid because it conflicts with the unambiguous language of the Affordable Care Act, particularly section 36B, which authorizes tax subsidies only for insurance purchased on “an Exchange established by the State.” The government argued that the statute taken as a whole reveals Congress’s intent that subsidies be available on both the federal and state exchanges. Any other conclusion, it contended, would generate an absurd result and be inconsistent with the ACA’s purpose and legislative history. Judge Griffith, writing for himself and Judge Randolph, found that the government’s arguments were insufficient to overcome the clear statutory text.
On the other hand, in King v. Burwell, the Fourth Circuit held that the language of the ACA, taken as a whole, was ambiguous on the question of whether tax subsidies applied to the federal exchange. The court acknowledged that the plaintiffs’ position made a “certain sense” and “accords more closely” with “a literal reading of the statute,” but after reviewing all relevant statutory provisions as well as the ACA’s structure, purpose and legislative history, it concluded that “we are unable to say definitively that Congress limited the premium tax credits to individuals living in states with state-run exchanges.” Instead, the court applied Chevron deference to the statutory interpretation adopted by the IRS in its regulation, thus upholding the agency’s decision to extend tax subsidies to insurance purchased on the federal exchange.
The two courts therefore reached different conclusions, but the various judges who have weighed in on the controversy (so far) reflect more than two views. The D.C. Circuit majority thought the ACA unambiguously prohibited the IRS from extending tax subsidies to insurance bought on the federal exchange. The Fourth Circuit majority, along with Judge Edwards dissenting in Halbig, thought that the ACA did not resolve the issue one way or the other and that the IRS was therefore free to determine whether or not tax subsidies should apply on the federal exchange. However, Judge Davis, concurring in King, found that Congress did resolve the question in the ACA and that the IRS was therefore required to adopt the interpretation that it did. And none of the judges appeared to agree with Judge Friedman, the lower court judge in Halbig, who found that the ACA unambiguously supported the IRS’s position.
In his Rules Committee testimony, Professor Turley cited the tax subsidy issue in Halbig as an example of Congress addressing an issue with a “lack of ambiguity” and the administration deciding to change Congress’s policy decision through a regulation. Turley expressed the hope that by bringing such cases to the courts, the House could obtain some sort of clear demarcation of congressional versus executive authority. Certainly the results in Halbig/King so far suggest this is a forlorn hope.
Even if a majority of the Supreme Court ultimately invalidates the IRS regulation, I don’t see that such a decision would expand or protect congressional power in some fundamental way. No one disputes that Congress could have resolved the issue through the ACA; the question is simply whether it did so. Indeed, it is arguable that the Halbig/King cases will expand executive authority by applying Chevron deference to an IRS determination that may not deserve it.
Just as importantly, even Judge Griffith’s opinion does not address, at least in any kind of direct way, the House’s constitutional concern that President Obama is failing to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. The D.C. Circuit concludes that the plaintiffs have the “better of the argument” as the tax subsidy issue, but it does not suggest that IRS (much less the President) promulgated the regulation in bad faith.
In sum, if the House were to sue regarding the employer mandate delay, the best it could hope for would be a court decision holding that delay to be invalid. But as I mentioned before, courts invalidate agency regulations all the time. How would one more such ruling change the balance of power between the branches?
With the background of the last two posts, let’s consider whether “the President acted beyond his authority to execute the laws” by delaying the employer mandate, to paraphrase the question asked at the House Rules Committee hearing. Or, rather, let’s separate this question into two.
The first is whether the delay of the employer mandate was “legal.” This is the question that a court would ask if the issue were properly before it. For example, suppose that an employee sued his employer, alleging that he is entitled to employer-provided health care in 2014. Like Professor Dellinger, I am unsure why an employee couldn’t bring such a suit in reality, but for present purposes just assume that such a suit would present a justiciable controversy.
The employer would argue that its obligation under the ACA is contingent upon regulatory action (implementation of the reporting requirement) that has not yet occurred and further that the Secretary of the Treasury has the authority under IRC Section 7805(a) to provide transition relief in the implementation of a law relating to taxation. Providing a full evaluation of the merits of this argument would require more time and research than I wish to devote to the matter. Suffice to say that I personally would not wager a significant sum on the outcome either way, but I would be particularly loath to bet on the administration’s theory that Section 7805(a), which makes no reference to “transition relief” at all, somehow gives the Secretary authority to provide such relief in contravention of specific statutory mandates.
Note that the issues in my hypothetical lawsuit might be slightly different than if there were a direct challenge to the legality of the Treasury Department’s regulatory action under the Administrative Procedures Act, in which case the court might be more inclined to defer to the agency’s interpretation of its obligations under the law. For example, it is possible, as Professor Bagley observes, that a court would conceptualize the action simply as an exercise of enforcement discretion, rather than an attempt to waive legal obligations set forth in law. In other words, the Treasury Department did not actually delay the employer mandate (the story would go), but merely announced its intention not use scarce resources to collect penalties against employers who violate the mandate in the first year. This may not ultimately be a persuasive argument (Bagley isn’t persuaded), but a court is unlikely to view it as frivolous either.
In short, the courts will likely view the question of the “legality” of the employer mandate delay as the type of routine administrative law issue they face every day. This, more than a full-throated defense of the administration’s legal position, was the point Simon Lazarus and Professor Dellinger were making at the Rules Committee hearing. After all, every administration must interpret and apply thousands of complex statutory provisions (often conflicting and/or poorly drafted, to boot) every day. Even if an administration were just “calling balls and strikes,” to use Chief Justice Roberts’ phrase, it would inevitably be judged to have violated the law on a fairly routine basis. So even if the courts were to declare the administration’s action with regard to the ACA illegal, what’s the big deal?
This merely underscores that the question the House wants answered is not the question the courts will answer, even if a justiciable case were to be brought by a plaintiff with standing. They will not issue a decision on whether the Secretary, much less the President, has “faithfully executed the laws.” They will decide (at most) whether a particular administrative regulatory action complies with the law. Indeed, they may not even decide that, but merely conclude that the action is of the kind where the court should defer to the agency’s judgment as to whether or not it complies with the law.