A Groundhog Day fight in Rules Committee over resolutions of inquiry

House Democrats continue to restrict long-standing oversight tool over fears of Republican abuse

Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., right, and ranking member Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., seen in 2019, disagree over the scope and use of the resolution of inquiry, a tool members can use to request information from the executive branch but which has been restricted recently.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., right, and ranking member Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., seen in 2019, disagree over the scope and use of the resolution of inquiry, a tool members can use to request information from the executive branch but which has been restricted recently. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 3, 2022 at 5:00am

Toward the end of the first House Rules Committee business meeting of 2022, ranking Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma offered an amendment to remove what looks like technical language from a resolution setting floor debate parameters for a duo of veterans’ benefits bills. 

However, the language, which has been included in committee resolutions for more than 1 1/2 years, limits the use of resolutions of inquiry — a legislative tool to request that the executive branch provide information to Congress. 

“Sometimes tough questions need to be asked to ensure proper oversight can be conducted,” Cole said at the meeting on Jan. 10. “Continuing to silence not only the minority but all members of this body does an extreme disservice to the institution.” 

Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern, who chairs the committee that has jurisdiction over the rules of the House and sets the terms and conditions for debate on measures before they are voted on by the full chamber, responded that he was “sympathetic.” But he also questioned whether House Republicans would use resolutions of inquiry for their intended purpose or to balloon the number of votes representatives take. 

“I know this is not felt by every single Republican member, but unfortunately the people who seem to be calling the shots are determined to do whatever they can to try to delay and obstruct,” McGovern told CQ Roll Call.

The panel rejected Cole’s amendment in a party-line vote, the same outcome as the other 10 times since February 2021 that a Republican on the committee has offered a similar amendment. The most recent attempt happened on Tuesday, coincidentally the day before Groundhog Day, the holiday that gave rise to the movie of the same name in which a weatherman played by Bill Murray must relive Feb. 2 over and over again.

Procedural fights

Like the effort to abolish or modify the Senate’s filibuster rule, the resolutions of inquiry debate is emblematic of the fight over what rights should be afforded to the minority in either chamber of Congress. But weakening the ability of the party with fewer elected members to hinder the majority’s agenda could hurt House Democrats in the future if the majority changes — as it regularly does — and potentially limits the institution’s oversight role. 

A representative doesn’t need to file a resolution of inquiry to request information from the president or an agency head — they can just ask. However, members of Congress can use such a resolution to bring attention to an issue or force their colleagues to take politically tough votes. 

“It’s easy to blow off an individual member. It’s much harder to do [that] when it’s a resolution of inquiry from the Congress,” Cole noted in an interview with CQ Roll Call. 

While a resolution cannot force a presidential administration to provide information, it can put pressure on it to do so. The Congressional Research Service reported that between 1947 and 2017 a resolution of inquiry prompted the executive branch to provide information 28 percent of the time. In half of the resolutions submitted during that period, it was unknown, unclear or in dispute whether they resulted in the production of anything that was requested. 

In recent history, the minority party in the House has predominantly used such resolutions because they can, under certain circumstances, be directly brought to a vote before the full chamber under a privileged status. But House majority leaders can block that from happening by marking up a resolution in the committee to which it’s been referred, which they’ve largely been successful at doing since 2003.

When the House in May 2020 approved, in a mostly partisan vote, changes to the chamber’s rules in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic to allow for proxy voting and remote committee proceedings, it also blunted resolutions of inquiry by effectively preventing them from being brought up on the floor if the committee of jurisdiction fails to consider them. 

McGovern emphasizes that his party did this when Donald Trump was president, so it’s not simply a matter of his party protecting President Joe Biden. 

“The argument can be made that Democrats should have been upset that they couldn’t investigate Trump more,” he said. “But we did this because we were dealing with a pandemic and we were trying to deal responsibly with the number of votes that we were having and to try to make sure that the process can move forward so you get things done.” 

Still, Cole accused House Democrats of continuing the rule change to shield Biden’s administration from another layer of oversight. 

“Speaker Pelosi does not mind a top-down organization where the minority is denied much in the way of tools to hold either her or a Democratic administration accountable,” he said. “And that’s regrettable because they won’t always be in the majority. And they won’t always have an administration they want to protect; they’ll have an administration they want to ask some tough questions to.”

House Democrats offered 14 resolutions of inquiry in the 115th Congress (2017-2018) when they were in the minority and Trump was president, including about his tax records, possible connections to Russia and the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. 

McGovern said there is a strong argument against returning the resolutions to their full force, citing routine requests from House Republicans for roll call votes on noncontroversial bills that pass by wide margins and, so far this Congress, 13 motions to adjourn the House’s proceedings for the day. 

“My father used to say to me: ‘There’s a fine line between being a good guy and a goddamn fool.’ My inclination is to try to be a good guy,” McGovern said. “We’re not perfect, but we do make an effort to accommodate Republicans where we can. But when I see and I hear what their strategy is — and that is bringing everything to a grinding halt — it’s hard to believe that it’s the responsible thing to give them another tool to turn into a weapon.”  

Cole doesn’t give much credibility to that perspective. 

“One side’s ‘delay and obstruct’ is another side’s legitimate question,” he said. “That’s really not a decision for [Democrats] to make, and they need to recognize the shoe is going to be on the other foot.”

Republicans could grant resolutions of inquiry privileged status again if they retake the House — something that would largely benefit Democrats. While Cole said he would advocate for that, it’s not solely his decision. 

“I don’t want to empower people on my side of the aisle to say they did that to us, so let’s do the same thing to them,” he said. “I hope we rise above it, but there’s no guarantee that we will. When you set bad precedents, the other side can always cite them and follow them.” 

McGovern and Cole, who appear to genuinely enjoy working together in committee meetings, both said they’ll continue to discuss the issue, but it’s likely that Cole and other Rules panel Republicans will offer more resolution of inquiry amendments that are rejected in party-line votes. 

That means there’s also the possibility for more baked goods. 

To criticize the pandemic rules change measure that limited resolutions of inquiry, Cole, about one year after its approval, brought a red, white and blue cake to a Rules Committee meeting in May of last year that read “Happy Birthday Martial Law.”

“We all love dessert, so I appreciate it,” McGovern said in response, before asking one of the panel Republicans to taste-test it for him.