GOP chairman cites ‘constitutional obligation’ in climate subpoenas

September 14, 2016
In The News

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) asserted Wednesday that he has a “constitutional obligation” in his controversial subpoenas of state attorneys general for the climate change-related investigations.

Smith, chairman of the House Science Committee, said at a hearing over the matter that as the House’s lead panel overseeing federal science programs, he is well within his rights and responsibilities.

“The committee has the power to issue these subpoenas and enforce their compliance,” Smith said at the hearing.

“In fact, the committee has a constitutional obligation to conduct oversight any time the United States scientific enterprise is potentially impacted.”

The concern that Smith, a climate change skeptic, has over scientific research stems from the investigations two Democratic attorneys general into whether Exxon Mobil Corp. committed fraud by allegedly denying global warming publicly while knowing internally that fossil fuels warm the climate.

Smith convened the hearing to assert that his panel has power over the attorneys general and can enforce his wide-ranging subpoenas demanding numerous documents related to their work.

“The committee is concerned that such investigations may have an adverse impact on federally funded scientific research,” Smith said. “If this is the case, it would be the responsibility of the committee to change existing law and possibly appropriate additional funds to even out any such imbalances caused as a result.”

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) have repeatedly argued that Smith’s subpoenas are unconstitutional invasions on states’ rights. Numerous Democratic attorneys general have agreed with them, and Republican attorneys general have taken Smith’s side.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas), the panel’s top Democrat, shot back at Smith and agreed with the contentions of Schneiderman and Healey.

“I hope all the members of the majority think long and hard about the precedent the chairman is setting here and whether you’d like Democratic members to take the same kinds of actions against conservative-minded groups with Democrats in the majority,” she said.

Johnson said Smith’s actions are little more than political stunts, and she compared them to the House Un-American Activities Committee’s hunting of communist sympathizers.

“In my own mind, I have to go back to the Red Scares of the 50s to recall a similar effort,” she said.

Smith brought in three conservative legal scholars to support his view that his subpoenas are valid, while Johnson brought in a liberal scholar to argue the opposite view.

Before the Wednesday hearing, Schneiderman and Healey reiterated their arguments that Smith’s probe is unconstitutional and overtly political.

“The hearing will do nothing to buttress a claim of authority to issue the unprecedented subpoena,” a Schneiderman deputy wrote Tuesday.

“Nothing in the committee’s ‘long history’ of research oversight supports the idea that the committee can wield oversight over state law enforcement officials in such an unrestrained fashion,” she said, quoting a letter from Smith.

Chloe Gotsis, a spokeswoman for Healey, called the hearing “just another attempt by Congressman Lamar Smith and his colleagues to interfere with our lawful and ongoing investigation into whether Exxon Mobil deceived Massachusetts consumers and investors about the impacts of fossil fuels on Exxon’s business, assets, and the environment,” and said the panel “has no jurisdiction over the investigative work of state attorneys general.”

Numerous Democrats and environmentalists objected to the probe at a news conference outside the Capitol Wednesday morning.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who has asked the federal Justice Department to investigate Exxon over climate, called the hearing a “gross abuse of federal power.”

May Boeve, executive director of, who received a subpoena along with a handful of other liberal environmental organizations, said her group has nothing to hide, but it is still fighting the subpoena on principle.

“If Lamar Smith wants our emails he should just sign up on our email list,” she said.

Meanwhile, conservative and oil industry groups highlighted research before the hearing showing that Schneiderman received campaign contributions from liberal activists like George Soros, and solicited support for a gubernatorial run from Tom Steyer.