Subpoenas: Rep. Lamar Smith's Favorite Climate Change Denial Tool

Representative Lamar Smith certainly has developed a love of subpoenas. 

Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, tends to go after anything that even hints at confirming climate change with a passion old-school Puritans must have had when defending every word of the Bible. Right now, that means defending ExxonMobil, and Smith has been zealously devoted to backing up the energy giant for months now. 

When the news broke a few months ago that there was evidence Exxon had been systematically hiding and denying any evidence of climate change for decades, environmental groups in several states responded with outrage. Exxon became the target of investigations by attorneys general in New York, Massachusetts and California.

The attorney general from the U.S. Virgin Islands also opened an investigation, but he closed it two weeks ago. A coalition of 17 Democratic state attorneys general formed in the wake of the reports and vowed to hold Exxon and other oil companies accountable for their behavior regarding climate change. 

But at the same time, Smith and the other Republican officials who have made the denial of climate change their political bread and butter responded by gearing up to go after anyone who was investigating Exxon. 

In May, 13 Republican members of the House Science Committee sent letters to the 17 state attorneys general and eight environmental groups and nonprofits demanding thousands of pages of documents to show whether the attorneys and environmentalists had collaborated to conduct probes into Exxon's history of conducting — and then burying and denying — climate change research. The letter sent by Smith and his fellow GOP committee members didn't play well or get much of a response. 

Last week the good congressman from the 21st Congressional District in Texas upped the ante by penning a new letter of his own, soundly scolding the "Green 20" for not handing over the requested information:

"If you continue to refuse to provide information responsive to the Committee's requests on a voluntary basis, I will be left with no alternative but to utilize the tools delegated to the Committee by the Rules of the House of Representatives," Smith wrote."Specially, the Committee will consider use of compulsory process to obtain responsive documents in the possession, custody, or control of your office."

He gave the state AGs and the environmental and nonprofit groups until Wednesday to acquiesce to his request. Otherwise, he'll use the "tool" he referred to, the subpoena.

Congress has wielded the power of the subpoena since the 1790s just after the federal government was first established. Subpoenas can be used for all sort of inquiries — to investigate everything from suspected political wrongdoing to the sinking of the Titanic — but the House Science Committee has been using the power to subpoena a lot lately.

In fact, ever since last year when House Republicans changed the rules and gave the committee chairman the right to issue a subpoena for documents or witnesses without having to consult the ranking Democrat on each committee, the House Science Committee has been sending out subpoenas like it's going out of style, as we've noted before.

Last fall, Smith started wrangling with scientists and officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration over a scientific paper that disproved the "global climate pause," a pet theory of climate science deniers. Finally, Smith just issued a sweeping subpoena to Kathryn Sullivan, the NOAA administrator, asking for a whole bunch of things, including scientists' email correspondence, as we've previously reported. 

At that point, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat from Dallas and a ranking committee member, sounded off against Smith's approach to his chairmanship. In a letter issued in October, Johnson stated the "subpoena is representative of a disturbing pattern in your use of Congressional power since your Chairmanship began." She went on to point out that since Smith had taken charge of the committee in 2013, the committee has issued six subpoenas, more than were issued in the prior 54 years of the committee's existence.

Johnson explained her concerns to the Houston Press via email on Friday. "A subpoena is a strong legal tool that should be used as a last resort," she stated. "Before Chairman Smith, the last time this Committee authorized a subpoena was in 1992. It’s remarkable that in the intervening time, no one felt compelled to take such a step. The reason is that past [Chairmen] from both parties have exercised this power with discretion."

The change in the rules means the chairman no longer has to hold a vote before issuing a subpoena, Johnson told the Press. "The Chairman has pursued an aggressive oversight agenda that seems designed more to generate press releases and harass the executive than to actually discover any significant waste, fraud or abuse in the programs we oversee," Johnson stated. "Conducting 'oversight' in this fashion weakens the authority of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, brings disrepute to our institution and tarnishes the legacy of the leaders who came before us."

Johnson has been left out of these subpoena decisions ever since the rule change that has made it even easier for Smith to do some saber-rattling. In his letter last week Smith even implied he could use the subpoena to force attorneys for one environmental group to break attorney-client privilege.

(We've asked Smith for his take on why he's been using subpoena powers so frequently, but haven't heard back yet. We'll update as soon as we do. )

Thus, Johnson quickly complained when Smith so much as hinted he might once again resort to subpoenas with the Exxon issue. In an open letter on June 23, well before Smith actually went there with the subpoena thing, Johnson lambasted Smith over his dogged Exxon investigation, calling his actions an "illegitimate exercise of Congressional oversight power." 

She asked Smith to drop the investigation, arguing that "the Committee's prolific, aimless, and jurisdictionally questionable oversight activities have grown increasingly mean-spirited and meaningless," and to end his habit of issuing subpoenas "in the dead of night" without a committee vote. She also pointed out that all the House Science Committee seems to do these days is generate press releases.

Smith didn't respond to her request. Instead, he alluded to possible subpoenas in his letter. The letter was followed up with a press release.  

Fun fact: He's up for re-election in November. Wonder how many subpoenas he'll manage to issue dealing with climate change by then. 
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray