The White House and the Republican congressional leadership are quietly preparing for intensified scrutiny and investigations of Obama administration actions if the GOP takes control of the House, officials say.
Republican lawmakers who would be in charge of investigative and oversight committees plan to renew a stack of information demands that have languished before federal agencies over the last 22 months. They have indicated that, if victorious next month, they will use subpoena power if necessary to compel officials to testify and provide documents.
The White House, anticipating such moves, is considering adding lawyers to its 20-person Office of Legal Counsel, which would be at the forefront of such skirmishes. Officials said they are preparing a post-election strategy likely to feature high-wattage fights between the White House and Congress.
The planning is in the early stages, and White House aides stress that, for now, President Obama is focused on helping Democrats protect their House and Senate majorities. As part of that effort, Obama is on a six-state swing, arriving in Portland on Wednesday to press his message that GOP victories could thwart his agenda and usher in what he calls discredited policies from the Bush era.
But Republicans are closing in on a series of wins that could put them in control of the lower chamber, positioning them to try to roll back Obama’s previous initiatives and block new ones.
Republican House leaders said they would avoid using their power to harass the president, by investigating the president’s birth certificate, for example. Obama was born in Hawaii, but some conservatives don’t believe it.
“The oversight function needs to be very focused on polices that kill jobs,” said Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “As long as we’re focused on trying to right the ship, the American people will support our efforts.”
If they win the majority, Republicans say that investigating Obama administration practices will be a special focus.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), the top-ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said that if Republicans gain control of the House on Nov. 2, he’ll direct his staff the next day to write to administration officials who have ignored his previous requests for information.
As a member of the minority, Issa said that no more than 30% of his letters to administration officials have been answered.
Issa has questioned how money has been spent under the federal stimulus program, and has criticized the administration’s successful court challenge of Arizona’s harsh immigration law.
A member of a House oversight subcommittee, Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R- Texas), has questioned details of the administration’s implementation of the healthcare overhaul, calling brochures sent to elderly Americans “propaganda.”
One letter to Obama complained that agency watchdog officials known as inspectors general, charged with rooting out waste and fraud, are short-handed. No reply arrived, Issa’s office said.
Issa also has complained about federal government websites, which he said often celebrate the people in charge, but skimp on data that would be useful to the general public.
Republicans said they don’t anticipate having to use their subpoena power extensively. Cantor said that the GOP’s anticipated “leverage” might make subpoenas unnecessary.
Issa said he would use his subpoena power sparingly.
“I don’t expect to use it often,” Issa said. “I don’t expect to use it lightly.”
A Republican House takeover next month would set up confrontations similar to 1994 and 2006, when White House rivals seized congressional control. In 1994, a Republican rout set off a chain of events leading to the impeachment of then- President Bill Clinton. In 2006, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco disappointed the party’s liberal base when she declared that Democrats would not reciprocate by targeting President George W. Bush.
In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan faced an array of investigations over his administration’s deal to sell arms to Iran and funnel proceeds to Nicaraguan Contra rebels. The White House counsel office had 12 attorneys then, but added 10 to deal with the scandal.
If Republicans gain control of the House, the Obama administration inevitably will face more requests for information on sensitive topics, said A.B. Culvahouse, former White House counsel under Reagan.
“It’s just the way the process plays out,” Culvahouse said in an interview. “If there are any intimations of White House involvement in sensitive or controversial decisions in major executive departments, the Congress frequently asks for any documents or information.”
Whatever the partisan configuration of the Hill in 2011, administration officials know that a bulked-up Republican contingent will require them to mount a strong defense.
White House senior advisor David Axelrod said that Republicans are intent on repealing the healthcare overhaul and Wall Street regulatory system that Obama signed into law. He pointed to threats by Republicans to hold up government spending measures, saying it could lead to a government shutdown.
“I don’t think that’s where most Americans want to go,” Axelrod said.
Earlier this fall, the internal debate in the White House was over two different post-election approaches: Pushing small-bore measures through a more intransigent Congress, or fighting for goals that matter to both Obama and his base.
As of now, the White House seems to favor the latter path. Administration officials are talking about pushing immigration overhaul and climate change legislation — volatile political issues that will underline the differences between the two parties.
Nicolas reported from Portland, Ore., and Parsons from Washington.