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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., joined by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaks during an Oct. 2, 2019, news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP/Walsh) House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., joined by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaks during an Oct. 2, 2019, news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP/Walsh)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., joined by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaks during an Oct. 2, 2019, news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP/Walsh)

Bill McCarthy
By Bill McCarthy November 4, 2019

Subpoenas vs. bills: What this CNN pundit got wrong

CNN commentator Mike Shields took aim at House Democrats during a recent on-air panel, claiming they have spent more time pursuing President Donald Trump’s impeachment than legislating.

"The Democrats are frittering away their majority," said Shields, the former chief of staff for the Republican National Committee and founder of the communications firm Convergence Media, in an Oct. 31 appearance on CNN. "They have issued more subpoenas than they’ve passed bills."

Shields’ claim parrots a similar attack that has made the rounds among conservative pundits and Republican lawmakers as the House continues its probe into Trump’s actions on Ukraine.

The claim has roots in an Oct. 22 article from the Washington Times, which said that under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Democrats have issued 56 subpoenas while passing just 46 bills that went on to become laws. 

But while other Republicans specified that the Washington Times article counted congressional subpoenas against House bills that were ultimately signed into law, Shields was less precise, instead comparing subpoenas issued to bills passed. 

In fact, House Democrats have helped pass more than 500 bills and resolutions, although many have not made their way to Trump’s desk. When we reached out to Shields, he said he "misspoke," and he later clarified his point on Twitter

"I meant to say more subpoenas than laws that have been passed, not bills," he told us. 

Even this revised claim gives a misleading impression, however. Experts said it’s meaningless to compare subpoenas with House bills enacted into law, because while a committee chairman can unilaterally issue a subpoena, there are more hurdles when it comes to legislation.

Counting House-backed laws can be misleading

The Washington Times counted 56 publicly acknowledged subpoenas that House Democrats issued between the start of their majority and the article’s Oct. 22 publication, including 15 related to the impeachment inquiry.

The report’s authors did not respond to requests for comment, but their subpoena tally lines up with what other news outlets have reported. By our count, the House has subpoenaed at least 24 people to date as part of the impeachment inquiry. 

Pelosi spokesperson Ashley Etienne said she believes the House has issued approximately 47 in total, adding that many were due to "stonewalling of the current administration and Trump’s posture of refusing to respond to congressional requests, inquiries and subpoenas."

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Etienne also pointed out that during President Bill Clinton’s administration, Republicans in the majority issued more than 1,000 subpoenas.

The Washington Times said the House has introduced and passed 46 bills-turned-laws since Democrats took over in January. According to Congress.gov, that’s accurate: There are 43 bills and 3 joint resolutions that originated in the House, passed the Senate and were signed into law by Trump.

But Josh Tauberer, president of GovTrack.us, a nonpartisan website that tracks government and congressional data, said the number of House bills that become law is not a reliable indicator of how hard the House is working to legislate.

That’s because bills are often introduced in pairs, with the House and Senate each proposing their own versions. "But which one is enacted is up to chance and doesn't indicate that only legislators in one chamber put in any effort," Tauberer said.

Not only that, but the text of a bill is often replaced as it goes through the legislative process, meaning "the chamber that a bill originated in, and a bill's original sponsor, may have no connection to the substance of the bill when it is enacted," he said.

This year, the House and Senate have combined to pass 66 bills that earned Trump’s signature, according to Congress.gov. But Tauberer said Pelosi’s House has voted on about 1,200 pages of new law and roughly 200 unique legislative proposals that ended up in those enacted laws. 

The House can’t make laws by itself

Experts said the biggest problem with the subpoenas-to-bills comparison is the lack of attention it pays to the Senate’s role in sending House-backed bills to the president’s desk.

"The House can't pass ‘bills into law’ by itself," said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.

According to Congress.gov, the House has passed or agreed to 522 bills and resolutions since January. But the Senate hasn’t acted on many of them. In July, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., vowed to block Democrats’ progressive policy proposals, telling an audience to "think of me as the grim reaper."

The GOP doesn’t have the same blocking power when it comes to subpoenas, however. 

"We are talking about two completely different processes," said Donald Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a Washington think tank. "A committee chairman can unilaterally issue a subpoena, whereas it takes a majority of House members and senators to enact a law. The latter is a much bigger hump to surmount."

Of course, Shields’ botched version of the comparison is even more wrong, since he originally said there have been more subpoenas than bills passed, which simply isn’t true.

Our ruling

Shields said Democrats "have issued more subpoenas than they’ve passed bills."

That’s wrong, and Shields clarified his point on Twitter. But the claim that House Democrats are responsible for more subpoenas than bills passed into law is also misleading, since it compares two very different processes.

We rate this statement False.

Our Sources

CNN Transcripts, "The Lead with Jake Tapper," Oct. 31, 2019

The Washington Times, "Former House lawyer says Pelosi's impeachment inquiry 'is illegal,'" Oct. 22, 2019

Mike Shields on Twitter, Nov. 1, 2019

GovTrack.us, "Advanced Search for Legislation," accessed Nov. 1, 2019

Congress.gov, "Public Laws," accessed Nov. 1, 2019

House of Representatives, "Congressional Oversight of the Clinton Administration," Jan. 17, 2006

USA Today, "All of the people who have been subpoenaed so far in House Democrats' impeachment inquiry," updated Nov. 1, 2019

The New York Times, "Subpoenas and Requests for Evidence in the Trump Impeachment Inquiry," Oct. 31, 2019

NBC News, "McConnell says he will be 'grim reaper' to Democrats' legislation," July 13, 2019

Subpoena letters from the House Intelligence Committee website, accessed Nov. 1, 2019

Subpoena letters from the House Oversight Committee website, accessed Nov. 1, 2019

PolitiFact, "Timeline: The Trump impeachment inquiry," Oct. 3, 2019

Email interview with Josh Tauberer, president of GovTrack.us, Oct. 31, 2019 and Nov. 1, 2019

Email interview with Joshua Huder, senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, Nov. 1, 2019

Email interview with Donald Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Nov. 1, 2019

Email interview with Ashley Etienne, spokesperson for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Nov. 1, 2019

Email interview with Mike Shields, CNN political commentator and founder of Convergence Media, Oct. 31, 2019

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Subpoenas vs. bills: What this CNN pundit got wrong

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