Pennsylvania Republicans' New 'Oversight Committee' Triggers Legal and Political Questions
By Steve Esack
Buried within the multitude of volumes that encompass Pennsylvania laws is a 176-year-old statute that is rarely used.
The June 13, 1842, law gives the Legislature the legal authority to issue subpoenas that force anyone to testify before the House or Senate about "any part of the commonwealth." It says those who refuse to testify can be imprisoned, while a separate "Contempt of the General Assembly" law carries a misdemeanor criminal penalty.
Despite those laws, the Republican-controlled House on Tuesday overwhelmingly voted to expand that chamber's investigative and subpoena power.
It targets the Democratic-controlled governor's office and three independent row offices -- attorney general, treasurer and auditor general.
The House voted 142-58 to adopt its biannual operational rules covering the 2019-20 legislative cycle. Within those rules, the House created a Government Oversight Committee to investigate "executive agencies and administrative actions."
The committee must design its own regulations to abide by its legal doctrine of holding hearings, within 24 hours notice, "at any place in this commonwealth" upon the referral of the speaker of the House or the chamber's Republican or Democratic leaders. As part of those hearings, the committee can issue subpoenas for documents and testimony "upon any person" -- with the exception of lawmakers and their legislative staffers, who are immune from the committee's oversight.
A day after that vote, questions swirled in the Capitol's legal and political circles: Why was the committee needed given the existing (if old) laws? Does the committee have the legal authority it claims? Will its power be used for partisan purposes? Will the first subpoena usher in a constitutional legal fight that ends up before the court, the third branch of government?
There's nothing political about the new committee, said Mike Straub, spokesman for newly minted House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster. As proof he pointed to the support of Democratic leaders and 32 votes (out of 93) from Democratic lawmakers.
The old laws provided the legal basis for the new committee's investigations and subpoena power, he said. The committee was needed, Straub said, because despite the old laws, the House's internal rules only granted subpoena power to the Appropriations Committee, which handles budget matters, and its Ethics Committee, which conducts private investigations of lawmakers' alleged transgressions.
"It's just expanding the responsibility the Legislature has of providing oversight on behalf of taxpayers," Straub said.
Bill Patton, a spokesman for the House Democratic Caucus, made it clear Democrats did not seek the new panel.
"We feel it's duplicative of the existing committees and will add great costs, especially in legal fees," Patton said. "It is simply unnecessary. It's one of the main reasons so many Democrats voted against adopting the package of rules."
The committee was modeled after a bill proposed last year by Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, but not approved. The goal, he said in an interview, is improved oversight across all committees.
"The point is to not actually do subpoenas," Grove said. "The purpose is to work with the administration to get documents. If the General Assembly is looking at a particular issue or a particular agency, it should be public knowledge and there should not be a need to have discussions of a subpoena."
House Republicans believe they have the legal authority to issue subpoenas, "however, there are obviously limitations due to separation of powers," said Gov. Tom Wolf's spokesman, J.J. Abbott.
Abbott would not say whether the administration would fight a subpoena either through its office of general counsel or the attorney general's office, which also handles lawsuits for the state. But, Abbott said, if the GOP-controlled chamber is serious about reform, it should follow Wolf's example by passing more stringent internal ethics rules that require lawmakers to turn in receipts for all taxpayer-funded travel and by imposing a gift ban from lobbyists and other seeking to do business with the government.
Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Northampton, agreed.
"There's no need for an oversight committee," Freeman said. "This is sort of an open-ended recipe for just disrupting government without having a clear mission in mind."
Attorney General Josh Shapiro and Treasurer Joe Torsella declined comment through their offices.
In an interview, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale questioned the need for the new oversight panel. Existing committees could do the same work and the Legislature could improve oversight simply by permitting his office to audit lawmakers' and the chamber's spending accounts, he said.
"I can't audit the Legislature because of separation of powers," DePasquale said.
If the aim is simply to improve cooperation among the branches of government, DePasquale said he's for it.
"I always look to cooperate with anyone," he said.
The Legislature rarely invokes its subpoena power, said Drew Crompton, the Senate Republicans' top lawyer. The House is free to create its own rules that enhance oversight, which is a good thing, he added. The legal fight, he cautioned, could come down to the application of the committee, particularly if subpoenas are issued.
"This [committee] could have merit," Crompton said, "but it's going to be interesting to see how it plays out."
(c)2019 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)