U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman took aim at House Democrats during a recent radio interview, claiming they have spent more time pursuing President Donald Trump’s impeachment than legislating.
"The critical business of the nation is not getting done," he said during a Nov. 11 interview with Jeff Katz on NewsRadio WRVA, "Everything has ground to a halt and everything becomes these hearings on impeachment. The ridiculous thing about this is there’s actually been more subpoenas issued by the majority than bills passed."
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.
While some Republicans specified that the Times article counted congressional subpoenas against House bills that were ultimately signed into law, Wittman 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. We reached out to Wittman and his director of communications, Kathleen Gayle, told us the congressman misspoke.
"Congressman Wittman meant to emphasize that House Democrats have issued more subpoenas than have had bills signed into law, as clearly there have been many partisan bills that have passed the House by an exclusively Democrat majority," Gayle wrote in an email the contained the italics.
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 to passing 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 about 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."
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 47 bills-turned-laws since Democrats took over in January. According to Congress.gov, that’s accurate: There are 44 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.
Also,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 68 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 laws 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, Wittman’s 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.
We should note that Political National fact-checked and rated False a nearly identical to Wittman’s, made Oct. 31 by CNN commentator Mike Shields.
Wittman said, "There’s actually been more subpoenas issued by the majority than bills passed."
That’s wrong, and Wittman’s spokesperson told us the congressman misspoke. But the claim the claim Wittman’s spokesperson says the congressman was trying to make - 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.