The House’s chief investigator said Tuesday he’s considering subpoenas to force the White House to turn over more details about its new political office, which Republicans say may be running afoul of laws banning the use of taxpayer money for political campaigns.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa said the White House has missed a target for turning over documents to Congress, and he set a new deadline of June 3.
“The American people have a right to know if their tax dollars are being spent to support congressional campaigns during the 2014 midterm elections in violation of federal law,” the California Republican wrote in a letter to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.
The White House shut down the political office in 2011 amid questions from an ethics watchdog that it may have violated the Hatch Act, a federal law that prevents federal employees from politicking on government time.
But in January, the White House said it was reviving it, renaming it the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach and saying it would be more limited in its role.
Mr. Obama isn’t the first to have such an office. Indeed, congressional Democrats conducted an investigation similar to Mr. Issa’s when President George W. Bush was in office. Democrats concluded Mr. Bush abused the system by coordinating top officials’ travel for political purposes.
Mr. Obama had a political office during his first two years in the White House, but shut it in early 2011, just ahead of a critical report from the ethics watchdog, the Office of Special Counsel, which said Mr. Bush’s version of the office violated the Hatch Act.
In a letter to Mr. Issa in March, White House chief lawyer Kathryn H. Ruemmler listed a watered-down office that would serve chiefly as a nerve center, collecting political data, fielding requests for Mr. Obama’s time and trying to figure out ways to advance the president’s agenda.
She also said her office is “in regular contact with the OSC, and we have obtained from OSC its latest guidance on Hatch Act compliance” — though she doesn’t say they checked specifically on reopening the political office.
Mr. Issa said she was trying to mislead Congress by implying the newly reopened office had been cleared with the OSC.
“The apparent lack of communication between the White House and the agency charged with Hatch Act enforcement is particularly surprising,” Mr. Issa said.
The White House didn’t respond to a message seeking comment on Tuesday.
Politics and the official business of government have always been in tension, particularly at the White House, where officials regularly shift from campaigns to government service and back again.
In its 2011 report, the OSC said problems extended back decades, including the Clinton White House pushing Cabinet secretaries to campaign for the president’s re-election in 1996, and the Reagan White House, which saw its entire political affairs office depart for the 1984 re-election effort.
The OSC said it is acceptable for the White House to have a political office, but officials must be wary of straying too far. Banned activities should include coordinating high-level administration officials’ political travel or activities, or taking part in events for Republican or Democratic campaign committees.