Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton Doesn’t Think Congress has a Right to Know What the White House is Doing
July 26, 2014 - 9:18 am
You’ve got to give credit to Washington, D.C.’s non voting delegate to Congress Eleanor Holmes Norton for her novel interpretation of the Constitution and legislative tradition.
Becoming exasperated with Republicans on the House Oversight Committee who kept insisting that a White House aide cannot ignore a subpoena to testify, Norton scolded Chairman Darrell Issa, telling him “You don’t have a right to know everything in a separation-of-powers government, my friend.”
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting congressional delegate for the District of Columbia, angrily sputtered during a congressional hearing Friday that the White House should not be held up to scrutiny, saying that there was no right to know what it was doing behind closed doors.
“You don’t have a right to know everything in a separation-of-powers government, my friend. That is the difference between a parliamentary government and a separation-of-powers government,” Norton said during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing.
It was, to put mildly, a significant departure from the more traditional liberal stance that openness and transparency are must to prevent abuses of power by government officials. Instead the leading advocate for statehood for the District of Columbia literally argued that even the congressional committee charged with oversight shouldn’t be asking questions in the first place.
She made the comments while protesting the committee’s Republican majority for voting to ignore a claim by the White House that David Simas, director of it’s Office of Political Strategy and Outreach, was immune to a congressional subpoena to testify. Republicans believe the office is being used a political campaign operation, a violation of federal election law.
Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., noted he was not alleging any wrongdoing by Simas, but there was a history of violations involving that particular office in prior administrations that justified requesting his testimony.
Under President Obama, the White House has asserted sweeping executive powers, including the right to ignore pretty much all congressional inquiries. The administration has regularly ignored subpoenas from congressional committees.
Holmes was clearly down with that. She called Issa’s subpoena a “showcase fishing expedition.” She went on to argue that the Constitution’s separation of powers specifically gives the people who work directly under the chief executive immunity from subpoenas. “The president’s immediate advisor is not an agency and this is not a matter of policy,” she said, before going to further clarify that we “don’t have a right to know” everything that the administration does.
The Legal Information Institute makes Holmes-Norton look like the idiot she is:
The Court has long since accorded its agreement with Congress that the investigatory power is so essential to the legislative function as to be implied from the general vesting of legislative power in Congress. “We are of the opinion,” wrote Justice Van Devanter, for a unanimous Court, “that the power of inquiry—with process to enforce it—is an essential and appropriate auxiliary to the legislative function. . . . A legislative body cannot legislate wisely or effectively in the absence of information respecting the conditions which the legislation is intended to affect or change; and where the legislative body does not itself possess the requisite information— which not infrequently is true—recourse must be had to others who possess it. Experience has taught that mere requests for such information often are unavailing, and also that information which is volunteered is not always accurate or complete; so some means of compulsion are essential to obtain what is needed. All this was true before and when the Constitution was framed and adopted. In that period the power of inquiry—with enforcing process—was regarded and employed as a necessary and appropriate attribute of the power to legislate— indeed, was treated as inhering in it. Thus there is ample warrant for thinking, as we do, that the constitutional provisions which commit the legislative function to the two houses are intended to include this attribute to the end that the function may be effectively exercised.”163
You can’t get any clearer than that. Both conservative and liberal justices have recognized the right of Congress to investigate just about anything it wants — including, especially, the executive branch. In 1927, the court “ratified in sweeping terms, the power of Congress to inquire into the administration of an executive department and to sift charges of malfeasance in such administration.”
There are limits on congressional investigative powers, especially regarding private citizens. But demanding testimony from the White House aide running the Office of Political Strategy because Congress believes “the office is being used a political campaign operation, a violation of federal election law,” is the very definition of “malfeasance” and therefore, well within the purview of the Committee’s investigative mandate.
Since contempt citations apparently mean even less than subpoenas to this administration, it’s hard to see how the Oversight Committee can compel anyone’s testimony who works at the White House. It’s just more evidence, if any more were needed, that this president regularly thumbs his nose at the law and tries to stonewall congress when the seek to expose his administration’s wrongdoing.