The Obama administration will refuse to let a top White House political aide testify before a House committee, invoking executive privilege in an escalating spat with Republican Representative Darrell Issa.
White House Counsel W. Neil Eggleston sent a letter yesterday to the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, saying David Simas, director of the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach, is “immune from congressional compulsion to testify on matters relating to his official duties.”
Issa earlier rejected a White House request that he lift a subpoena for Simas in return for a briefing on how the political strategy office complies with laws restricting the political activity of federal employees.
“I believe his on-the-record testimony will provide valuable insight into White House efforts to ensure appropriate use of taxpayer funds,” Issa said in a statement.
Issa, of California, has used the committee to investigate actions by President Barack Obama’s administration including the Internal Revenue Service’s scrutiny of Tea Party groups and the administration’s handling of the 2012 attacks on a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. The latest probe is focused on whether the political office complies with the Hatch Act, which limits the political activities of federal employees.
White House political aides spent more than an hour yesterday briefing Issa’s aides on their operations and answering questions, according to a Democratic aide who asked for anonymity to describe the private session. Issa didn’t attend the briefing, which his office says was only for staff.
Democrats on the committee say Issa has no evidence of inappropriate activity by the White House political operation, and charged him with issuing the subpoena to further his own ambitions.
“Today’s briefing from the White House was detailed and thorough, and committee staff were able to ask all the questions they had,” said Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the panel’s highest ranking Democrat. “There seems to be no reason to continue this ridiculous confrontation other than to manufacture false controversy.”
Presidents from both parties have set up political offices in the White House and have long resisted congressional efforts to subpoena their staff. They’ve often been defended by members of their own party on Capitol Hill.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that the president’s top advisers are covered under executive privilege,” House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, who was then the chamber’s minority leader, told reporters in 2007 during Republican President George W. Bush’s administration.