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Waxman Digs Into Bag of Tricks

House Democrats plunged anew into the bitter Texas redistricting battle Wednesday, demanding that the Department of Homeland Security turn over records of any contacts it had with outside officials trying to track legislators who fled the state Capitol rather than vote on a new Congressional map that would better Republicans’ electoral odds.

Nine members of the Government Reform Committee, led by ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), invoked the seldom-used “Seven Member Rule” in demanding the information.

“Any allegation that the resources of the Department of Homeland Security were used to intervene in an internal state political dispute is a serious matter,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Wednesday.

The move represents Waxman’s second test in two years of the obscure 1928 statute, which enables any seven-member group from Government Reform to demand information from the agencies it oversees. The federal courts are currently mulling how much power the law gives to committee members who invoke it.

The outcome of those deliberations could have an enormous long-term impact on Congress’ ability to conduct oversight. In the short term, however, the statute amounts to only the latest device deployed by Democrats in an effort to spotlight somewhat ambiguous allegations of GOP wrongdoing.

The latest volley from the Democrats drew an exasperated response from Republicans, who suggested the are simply trying to prolong the dispute through vague accusations and innuendo.

“They’re trying to squeeze every last bit of juice out of this fruit, and this fruit is rotted,” said Jonathan Grella, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who has been at the center of the redistricting controversy throughout its entirety.

“We welcome any efforts to set the story straight,” Grella added. “We are disheartened, however, by what seems to be a concerted campaign of lies, innuendo and carefully crafted rhetoric.”

After weeks of charges and counter-charges, the Washington end of the redistricting dispute has come down to this: suggestions by Texas Democrats and others that there exists at DHS a number of records — including notes, audio recordings and transcripts — of communications between that department and the Texas Department of Public Safety during the period after approximately 50 Democratic state legislators went missing several weeks ago, only to turn up eventually in Ardmore, Okla.

DHS has confirmed that one of its divisions was contacted by Texas officials, citing what it described in a written statement as “an urgent plea for assistance from a law enforcement agency trying to locate a missing, lost or possibly crashed aircraft.” The statement said an officer who contacted the department noted that the airplane had “state representatives” on board and that it could not be located.

It is not clear whether Waxman and his co-signatories believe illegalities may be uncovered, though the letter gravely cites long-ago concerns that DHS not be used to “create an Orwellian surveillance state.”

“Any intentional effort to use the Department to assist in a partisan political dispute would be a deviation from the Department’s mission and an abuse of its powers,” the Waxman group wrote.

To this point, news reports out of the Lone Star State have suggested that at worst DHS was the unwitting victim of wrongdoing by state officials who may have intentionally misled the federal department. Indications that some Texas officials were ordered to destroy documents and other information about the search for the missing legislators have touched off a criminal investigation in the state.

Waxman could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Eric Burns, a spokesman for Rep. Chris Bell (D), the lone Texan to sign the letter and a leader of the Democratic side of the delegation’s efforts in the redistricting fracas, said there is a “legitimate question” about the extent to which federal resources were used to intervene in what Democrats believe was an internal Texas political dispute.

“At this point there are no allegations of wrongdoing, other than the question of why isn’t this [information] being revealed,” Burns said. “Why not just lay it out on the table?”

Besides Waxman and Bell, the Government Reform lawmakers who signed the Ridge letter include Democratic Reps. William Lacy Clay (Mo.), Danny Davis (Ill.), Paul Kanjorski (Pa.), Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), Carolyn Maloney (N.Y.) and Major Owens (N.Y.). Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) also signed.

Homeland Security Department officials did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Waxman first invoked the Seven Member Rule two years ago in an effort to force the Commerce Department to release statistically adjusted data from the 2000 Census. The Justice Department challenged the move, but Waxman won the first round before a U.S. district judge in 2002.

The matter is now under appeal before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. House lawyers have filed a brief opposing Waxman’s suit.

Basically at stake is the question of whether the statute can empower a small group of lawmakers — not enough even to make a quorum — to compel the release of information by the executive branch, given that the use of the Seven Member Rule presumes that a majority of relevant lawmakers opposes the effort.

Stan Brand, a former House general counsel, said he doubts that the 9th circuit will uphold the lower court’s ruling. He said the existing case law makes clear that the courts are not inclined to enable “rump groups” of lawmakers to get around the will of the majority in the House.

“The [Seven Member] statute flies in the face of this principle,” Brand said.

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