Abuse of Congressional Oversight Authority Poses a Threat to Open Government Advocacy Work

In May, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology issued subpoenas to nine science advocacy organizations‒including a partner in the OpenTheGovernment.org coalition, the Union of Concerned Scientists‒demanding disclosure of the organizations’ communications with state prosecutors. The subpoenas were issued as part of the Chairman’s effort to investigate whether science advocacy organizations are “conspiring” with state prosecutors “to deprive ExxonMobil of its First Amendment rights”.  In response, the Ranking member of the Committee, Rep. Bernice Johnson, urged Chairman Smith to cease the investigation, calling it an unconstitutional violation of NGOs’ exercise of free speech and an abuse of Congressional authority. 

The subpoenas raise serious concern that Rep. Smith is using his congressional authority to intimidate and censor science advocacy organizations.  Accountable government requires that all public officials exercise their constitutional and statutory authority within prescribed limits.  OTG believes that the current actions by Chairman Smith fall outside of the Committee’s authority, and that the subpoenas to nonprofit organizations constitute an abuse of the oversight power accorded to the Committee. OTG opposes the use of subpoena authority to pressure civil society organizations to disclose internal communications. It is imperative that public interest organizations have the freedom to communicate and to express their views without fear of censorship or reprisal from government authorities.

As the Committee prepares to hold hearings on September 14, 2016, OTG supports the calls urging Rep. Smith to withdraw his subpoenas and end the interference with the free speech rights of the science advocacy organizations.  As a coalition of more than 90 organizations concerned with government openness, accountability, and good government, OTG believes that transparency is fundamental to an accountable, inclusive government that works for the people of the United States.

Additional resources:

Abrams Institute Letter Objects to Science Advocacy Organizations Subpoenas (Abrams Institute)

Science Group Denounces Lamar Smith (UCS)

House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith Defends ExxonMobil, Subpoenas Union of Concerned Scientists: An FAQ

Letter from Ranking Member Bernice Johnson, House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology