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Republicans defend quick use of subpoenas in House panel probe

Congress typically obtains executive branch documents by negotiation rather than subpoena, Democrats said

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., testifies during the Weaponization of the Federal Government Subcommittee hearing Thursday.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., testifies during the Weaponization of the Federal Government Subcommittee hearing Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Republicans defended their use of subpoenas Thursday in their first subcommittee hearing on the “weaponization” of the federal government, as Democrats accused them of trying to use that congressional tool to score political points.

Chairman Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, argued the panel’s first three subpoenas, issued Friday, came after months of stonewalling from the Biden administration over conservative concerns that the Justice Department targeted parents’ protests at school board meetings.

Congressional subpoenas for executive branch documents rarely fare well in the courts, but Jordan argued Thursday that “we tried in the last Congress.”

“We sent over 100 letters. We tried,” Jordan said.

Democrats during Thursday’s hearing pointed to the subpoenas as part of their broader criticisms of the panel. Del. Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I., the ranking member, hinted the committee knew that Congress typically obtains executive branch documents by negotiation rather than subpoena.

“You catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” Plaskett said, but “vinegar works better on social media.”

Jordan immediately pushed back. “We tried the honey, 100 letters we sent out, the honey didn’t work,” Jordan said.

Plaskett responded: “Last Congress. You were ranking member. You’re now the chairman.”

“The honey didn’t work; that’s why we issued subpoenas,” Jordan said.

The panel issued subpoenas on Friday to FBI Director Christopher Wray, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. The subpoenas sought documents related to a memorandum to investigate potential crimes related to threats against school boards and surveillance of individuals connected to those threats.

Democrats ran into their own issues attempting to enforce subpoenas against the Trump administration in the 116th Congress. There, majority Democrats issued subpoenas seeking documents related to the first impeachment of President Donald Trump, the 2020 census and Trump’s personal finances.

The Democrat-controlled House had limited success enforcing those subpoenas in court. It took a two-year legal battle to obtain the testimony of former White House counsel Don McGahn.

Elliot Williams, a former Senate and DOJ counsel who now works as a principal at the Raben Group, a public relations firm, told the subcommittee that issuing subpoenas makes it “far more likely to end up in litigation and tied up in the courts for, whether it’s months or years, thereafter.”

Jordan has promised muscular oversight of the Biden administration and said Thursday that would include transcribed interviews with at least three whistleblowers.

“We expect to hear from Americans who’ve been targeted by their government. We expect to hear from people in the media, and we expect to hear from the FBI agents who have come forward as whistleblowers,” Jordan said.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., who testified in the committee’s first panel, criticized the panel for its apparent political approach to the probe and its apparent flip-flop on subpoenas. Raskin was a member of the select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol last Congress, and Jordan was one of five members of Congress who did not comply with subpoenas from that committee.

“The public wonders whether members who refused to comply with congressional subpoenas themselves should be issuing congressional subpoenas to other people,” Raskin said.

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