The House Judiciary Committee grappled 45 years ago with the same thorny issue that it faces this week: how to respond to an executive branch defiantly refusing to comply with congressional subpoenas.
That committee is currently dealing with the Trump administration’s refusal to comply with its subpoena for the unredacted report (and its supporting documents) of special counsel Robert Mueller and contemplating issuing one to compel the testimony of Attorney General William Barr, who refused an invitation to testify on Thursday.
The Watergate congressional investigators, however, had a card that the current Congress lacks, as the 1974 committee’s subpoena for President Richard Nixon’s tapes was part of an impeachment inquiry of the president.
Because the current Congress has not authorized an impeachment inquiry, the ability of the House to enforce its subpoenas or to punish Barr is sharply circumscribed. History affords Congress maximum power only when it is investigating a possible impeachment. The 1974 staff report bluntly stated, “The Supreme Court has contrasted the broad scope of the inquiry power of the House in impeachment proceedings with its more confined scope in legislative investigations.”
Embracing its unique constitutional role to check an out-of-control executive branch by using its impeachment power against either President Donald Trump, Barr or both will be the sole way to guarantee that Congress can enforce its subpoenas.
Only by instituting an impeachment proceeding will Congress be equipped to act on the evidence that Mueller intended to convey to it. And by not acting, a dangerous precedent will be set, relegating Congress to subservience to the president as a forever-unequal branch of government. [Continue reading…]