Beneath the heated argument of whether the House should have a formal resolution to open an impeachment inquiry is a potential benefit for Republicans, if they can force a vote: the chance to subpoena their own witnesses and information.
In both the Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton impeachment inquiry resolutions, the minority party on the investigating committee was granted the power to subpoena — something the minority party does not normally have. Subpoenas were still subject to a vote of the committee, giving the majority party a way to block them.
If similar language were included in a House impeachment inquiry resolution against President Donald Trump — which is what Republicans are pushing for — it would theoretically enable GOP members to, say, subpoena testimony or information from former Vice President Joe Biden, or his son Hunter, or try to take the inquiry into an entirely different direction.
The issue could come to a head soon amid reports that the White House plans to announce it will not comply with Democrats’ investigation, or subpoenas, unless the House holds a formal vote opening an impeachment inquiry.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in a letter last week to put the impeachment inquiry on hold “until transparent and equitable rules and procedures are established.” His staff argues it’s about making sure the party in the minority has some power during the impeachment process.
Pelosi shot that down in a letter of her own hours later, saying that House committees already have the power needed to conduct the inquiry under current House rules and no vote is necessary. That’s true. At the time of the Clinton impeachment, committee chairs needed a formal vote to give them subpoena power. Since then the rules have changed and their regular powers have been expanded, so they don’t need the vote — though Republicans, as the minority, still would.
Republicans have tried to mount a vigorous defense of Trump, and if they get the power to issue subpoenas, they’re likely to use it, said William Howell, a professor of American politics at the University of Chicago.
“This is almost entirely about framing the narrative,” he said. “Just on procedural grounds they are going to try to delegitimize the impeachment effort.”
There is precedent for McCarthy’s request. The House voted to allow an inquiry into whether to impeach Clinton in 1998 and Nixon in 1974, and Republicans have pointed to that as proof that Democrats are acting outside the scope of expected fair behavior regarding impeachment in investigating Trump.
In Clinton’s case, the inquiry opened after the House received Kenneth W. Starr’s report. In Nixon’s case, the House Judiciary Committee spent months investigating and compiling evidence before voting to open an inquiry, which Democrats have pointed to as proof they can wait.
But Pelosi is correct that neither House rules nor the Constitution require a vote to begin the impeachment process, and while there have been similarities in each previous case of impeachment, each instance has been different.
Even if she allows a vote, there is no guarantee Pelosi would grant subpoena power to ranking members, allow the president’s counsel to be present during depositions or other items Republicans say they want in the resolution, said Julian Epstein, former chief counsel for the House Judiciary Committee Democrats during Clinton’s impeachment. But if she didn’t, that would give Republicans something new to complain about.
“It could spell those things out or doesn’t have to,” Epstein said. But “it gives them a soapbox on which to argue process.”