The House Committee on Science, Technology, and Space, which traces it origins back to the space race, is tasked with overseeing nondefense scientific advancement. That’s why you may be surprised to learn that Committee is holding a hearing today on “Affirming Congress’ Constitutional Oversight Responsibilities: Subpoena Authority and Recourse for Failure to Comply with Lawfully Issued Subpoenas.”
To understand how the House Committee on Science came to hold a hearing about subpoena powers and the Constitution, one must understand that this isn’t exactly their first detour from their chartered mission. In fact, while today’s hearing seems like an utterly bizarre topic for the Science Committee to be discussing, they have been drifting down this road for some time now.
Scientist and those generally interested in science have held the Science Committee in low repute ever since the committee came to dominated by individuals who differed from the scientific consensus on climate change. To make matters worse, these individuals not only, according to critics, had a low level of scientific literacy, but held a general hostility towards science and were using the committee as a vehicle to advance this hostility. For example, one member of the committee, Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga, said
“All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.”
This hostility to the scientific community (lies from the pit of Hell!) has led the committee to engage in conduct towards witnesses critics have called “a mixture of hostile heckling and insulting sarcasm.”
This, of course, still doesn’t explain why the Science Committee is holding a hearing on Congress’s constitutional powers to issue subpoenas. As the center of this hostility towards scientists, is a belief that not only is the scientific consensus, in the expert opinion of the majority of the committee members, false, but that it is a the product of a sinister political conspiracy. This conspiracism has laid the groundwork not just for heckling scientists and government officials, but for a political witch hunt as the Committee now has its eyes set on civil society groups.
After several independent reports raised claims that Exxon Mobil’s own research was in line with the scientific consensus on climate change, but instead told the public “facts” its research showed to be false. As a result of this, several civil society groups used their First Amendment rights to suggest that Exxon Mobil could and should be prosecuted for knowingly misleading the public. Members of Congress suggested that what Exxon Mobil had done was similar to what tobacco companies had done in misleading the public about the health impacts of smoking and should face similar legal consequences. A number of state attorneys general announced they were launching fraud investigations to determine if Exxon Mobil defrauded its investors.
This angered members of the House Science Committee, who claimed that there was a conspiracy afoot to deprive Exxon Mobil of its First Amendment rights. As part of the House Science Committee’s interjection into this debate, they first requested, and now subpoenaed, the communications of the state Attorneys General, and civil society groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace, and 350.org, all of which have refused to comply.
This subpoenaing of the records of civil society groups is flatly outside the authority of the Science Committee, and abridges the First Amendment rights of the civil society groups. As an organization that was founded to abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and whose founder, Frank Wilkinson, went to jail for refusing to testify before HUAC about his personal political affiliations, we feel strongly that congressional committees should never again be used to police political views.
This is why we were honored to sign onto a legal letter circulated by the Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression at Yale Law School and signed by noted First Amendment attorneys Floyd Abrams, David Cole, and Erwin Chemerinsky. The letter, which can read below, lays out the how the Committee lacks the Constitutional authority to subpoena the civil society communications between themselves and state officials about climate change. It calls on the subpoenas to withdrawn promptly and states “[s]hould Congress seek to enforce them, we are confident that a federal court will take seriously the lessons this country learned from McCarthyism and refuse to do so.”
Instead of returning to the issue scientific advancement, the Science Committee is now holding a hearing on the Constitutionality of its own actions. We hope that this is only a temporary diversion and that the House Science Committee will get back to its mandate of holding hearings about science and cease pretending to be HUAC. As the organization that lead the fight to abolish HUAC, we can assure you that we do not need the House Science Committee playing their role.