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House Education Committee Staffers Get New Power This Congress

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The new session of Congress means new rules. Amid the turnover accompanying the 115th Congress, you might have missed changes to staff investigative authority that affects the Education and Workforce Committee in the House of Representatives. Just how, and whether, the education panel chooses to use it remains to be seen.

Here's a quick overview of these shifts to what's known as Staff Deposition Authority, as Bloomberg reported last month: In the new session of Congress, majority staff members on the education committee and all other House committees except two (the committees on rules and administration) will have the power to call in government officials and others for depositions under oath, behind closed doors. And unlike in the 114th Congress, staff members on those committees in the GOP-controlled House will have the power to call these depositions without having a committee member present, if the House is not in session that day. 

In the last Congress, only five committees, not including the education panel, had this authority. 

In the Bloomberg story, a spokesman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi denounced the move as "a shocking continuation and expansion of House Republicans' abusing of congressional processes to intimidate private citizens." This spokesman cited the House Selective Investigative Panel into Planned Parenthood's activities as an example of treating private citizens improperly.

So should we expect a big spike in these sorts of hearings on the House education committee? Not necessarily. 

In contrast to the committee staff who dealt with workforce issues in recent years, the committee staffers dealing with education had relatively good working relationships with their counterparts in the Obama administration, said James Bergeron, a former top staffer on House education committee for former chairman Rep. John Kline, R-Minn. That meant they were comfortable going through the more traditional committee hearing process.

"It never rose to the occasion where we had to do this," said Bergeron, who's now the president of the National Council of Higher Education Resources.

The House education committee doesn't necessarily fit the stereotype of a setting in which staffers call in federal officials and others to grill them about hot-button policy and political issues. Whether the panel uses it with Education Department officials could also depend on how the committee's relationship with the Trump administration evolves. 

But this power, if committee staff use it, could prove to be a double-edged sword. A Democratic aide in Congress said that if the GOP oversteps in some way in the use of this deposition authority, "It presents a really great oversight opportunity for us." 

Photo: The U.S. Capitol (Susan Walsh/AP)


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