House Republicans voted Wednesday to authorize congressional subpoenas demanding that the Obama administration turn over documents it has refused to provide in two investigations, including one looking at the post-Gulf of Mexico drilling moratorium.
The 23-17 vote in the Natural Resources Committee escalated yet another showdown between the administration and House Republicans, who have flexed their investigative powers on everything ranging from immigration to gunrunning to land use.
In the moratorium case, the committee is trying to figure out whether politics were behind edits the Interior Department made to its six-month Gulf drilling ban report, which suggested its own panel of experts agreed with the moratorium, even though the engineers actually opposed that decision.
The other subpoenas seek documents on whether the administration is following the rules as it tries to rewrite coal-production regulations.
“It is unfortunate that we have reached this point today, but the [Interior] Department has left us with no other choice,” said committee Chairman Doc Hastings, Washington Republican, who pointed to President Obama’s pledge of transparency. “The administration is not only failing to uphold this promise, but is actively preventing Congress from carrying out its oversight authority.”
The vote gives Mr. Hastings authority to issue the subpoenas at any time. An aide said Republicans hope the vote prompts the administration to turn over the documents they are seeking, but said Mr. Hastings is prepared to act in short order.
Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said that the investigations “seem to be more about harassing and tying up the administration” than trying to answer important questions.
Democrats said the administration has already turned over 13,000 pages of documents in the coal-production rules investigation, and 1,000 pages in the offshore-drilling moratorium. Mr. Markey said some of the other documents Republicans are seeking have already been reviewed by their investigators in private.
“Your staff know what these documents say, which means they also know these documents say nothing of import,” Mr. Markey said.
He also said Republicans themselves are keeping documents from the Democrats on the committee, and asked that they be made public in accordance with the Republican demands for transparency.
The oil moratorium has dogged the Obama administration.
Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar’s report accompanying the July 2010 moratorium seemed to imply that the panel of engineers he had asked to review the moratorium concurred with the decision, though most of the engineers actually disagreed.
After the engineers protested, the White House at the time acknowledged it had disregarded their scientific conclusions in favor of a “policy” decision - which the administration has the authority to do.
The latest oil-production numbers from 2011 showed a drop on federal lands, which analysts said was chiefly attributable to the drilling moratorium.