House GOP Gives Staff Broader New Powers to Grill Witnesses

  • Rules changes let committees compel testimony during recess
  • Democrats say deposition powers usually reserved for members

A little-noticed provision approved Tuesday by the U.S. House dramatically expands the powers of committee staff to haul private citizens and government officials to Capitol Hill to be questioned under oath -- without any lawmakers present, in some cases.

The Republican-authored change included in a House rules package marks what Democrats says is a disturbing trend of giving staff powers that have traditionally been reserved for members of Congress.

“After spending six years demonstrating their eagerness to spend taxpayer money on wasteful, politically motivated witch hunts, Republicans are giving themselves additional tools to do more of the same," said Representative Louise Slaughter of New York, the top Democrat on the House Rules Committee.

"Freely handing out the power to compel any American to appear, sit in a room, and answer staff’s invasive questions on the record -- without members even being required to be present -- is truly unprecedented, unwarranted, and offensive," she said.

The provision was overshadowed by a much more high-profile battle over a Republican-led effort to strip the congressional ethics office of its independence. Republicans scrambled to remove that amendment at the last minute after complaints from constituents and critical tweets from President-elect Donald Trump.

But Republicans confirmed that the new rules package extends wider deposition authority to more committees. In the past, some witnesses tried to use members’ busy schedules to avoid being deposed, according to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office. For the past two years, five panels had been granted the wider deposition power under a pilot program that is now being expanded, his office said.

A spokeswoman for the Rules Committee said the authority was used in the previous Congress several times, including by the Energy and Commerce Committee to obtain documents involving drinking water problems in Flint, Michigan.

‘Staff Deposition Authority’

At issue is a section of the rules package, adopted largely along party lines, that refers to "Staff Deposition Authority."

That section states that during the new two-year congressional session, every committee chairman, except for those leading the Rules and Administration panels, "may order the taking of depositions, including by subpoena, by a member or counsel of such committee." 

It goes on to state that at least one member of the committee would have to be present for the taking of the deposition -- unless, that is, the House is not in session that day. In that case, no lawmaker would have to be present.

An assessment by Democratic staff said that would make it "much more likely that depositions will be lengthy and numerous."

Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, said, “This rules change represents a shocking continuation and expansion of House Republicans’ abusing of congressional processes to intimidate private citizens just as they did with the Select Committee to Attack Women’s Health."

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