May 19, 2019 - Politics & Policy

Democrats' next oversight move: The power of the purse

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

House Democrats are considering a new idea to pressure the Trump administration to comply with their subpoenas. The idea is to use the appropriations process as leverage and threaten to withhold funding until they get the documents and testimony they've requested.

Why it matters: It's a move that has a high risk of failure, since appropriations bills have to be approved by a Republican-held Senate and signed by the president. But given the Trump administration's determination to resist all of the Democrats' oversight efforts, and the prospect that court fights could take years, they're being forced to consider every tool they might have.

How it works: Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee are writing the bills that will fund the federal government for the next fiscal year — including the ones that will fund the Justice Department and the Treasury Department, two of the departments that have been resisting subpoenas.

  • A separate House committee could ask the appropriators to add a provision that would limit funds to a department that isn't complying with the subpoenas.
  • A member of Congress could also try to attach an amendment to one of the appropriations bills when they reach the floor in June.

So far, there's no detailed plan. Axios spoke with several members of Congress and staffers involved in the talks, and as of now they say discussions have been preliminary.

  • "We look at it as, 'Okay what's our recourse?' This is one of them. We also have contempt orders and fines," a senior Democratic leadership aide told Axios.
  • A House appropriations committee aide said the tactic would probably be useful mostly as a threat, adding that "if Dems are trying to target swift compliance, this may not be the most effective option" given how long it takes to pass appropriations bills.

The bottom line: There's probably no oversight tool that won't lead to months of delays if the Trump administration is determined to resist House Democrats.

Go deeper: How Trump is stalling Democrats

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