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Hill: Justice Department, Congress need to bring back subpoenas' teeth

After eight years of the Obama administration picking and choosing which laws to enforce and showing contempt for congressional oversight, the time has come for the new Congress and U.S. Department of Justice to stand up for the rule of law.

Congress is a co-equal branch of the federal government and is charged with oversight responsibilities in our nation’s system of checks and balances. Congressman Lamar Smith, Chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, has issued subpoenas to State Attorneys General Eric Schneiderman (N.Y.) and Maura Healey (Mass.) for records relating to their “Green 20” climate change campaign.

Green 20 is a coordinated campaign between professional environmental activists and 20 state attorney generals, who claim to be investigating whether ExxonMobil and other energy firms have committed fraud on the public by suppressing key climate change science. Schneiderman and Healy are spearheading the effort.

Chairman Smith and his committee are concerned that the Green 20 are abusing their prosecutorial powers for political purposes. He believes the group may be engaged in “political theater” that “run(s) counter to an attorney general’s duty to serve ‘as the guardian of the legal rights of the citizens.’”

Schneiderman and Healey have publicly announced that their offices will not comply with the committee’s subpoenas.

This matter is an ideal test case, pitting Congress and the Justice Department against two attorneys general trying to win points with their political base. Schneiderman and Healy are both grandstanding ideologues who appear to be misusing the powers of their offices to target political opponents and silence the speech of climate change critics. Where civil rights and the First Amendment are at issue Congress has every right to investigate.

If the two continue their defiance and fail to produce records, Chairman Smith should hold a new hearing on the attorneys’ general failure to comply with the subpoenas. If both continue to refuse to comply, the committee should vote to hold both Schneiderman and Healy in contempt of Congress. House Speaker Paul Ryan should waste no time in scheduling a vote on the floor of the U.S. House.

If the House votes in favor of contempt, a criminal referral should be sent to Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking him to prosecute both attorneys general for not complying with a lawfully issued congressional subpoena. Congressional subpoenas of course are not optional and allowing a policy of non-enforcement of certain subpoenas is a slippery slope that will set a dangerous precedent for future oversight investigations.

Throughout President Obama’s tenure in the White House, the lack of respect shown by his administration for congressional oversight, subpoenas, and Freedom of Information Act requests was nothing short of stunning. Whether it was Operation Fast and Furious, Benghazi, or political targeting at the Internal Revenue Service, congressional investigations were stonewalled and the mainstream media sat idly by. And when it was time for Congress to do their duty and finally impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, they failed to step up.

What happens with the Science Committee’s subpoenas will be an early test for the new Congress and the new leadership at the Justice Department. If the rule of law is truly back in America, Congress must step up as a co-equal branch of government with constitutionally mandated oversight responsibilities and take action. Moreover, the Justice Department must treat contempt of Congress charges and non-compliance with subpoenas with the seriousness they deserve if our system of checks and balances is to work properly.

Only time will tell.

David N. Bossie is president of Citizens United and President Trump’s former Deputy Campaign Manager. Bossie previously served as Chief Investigator for U.S. House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight.


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