A New Level of Government Overreach From an Unlikely Source

Wednesday, September 14, the House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology

(CSST) held a hearing to affirm its legal involvement in several ongoing fraud investigations.

The investigations are being conducted by the Attorneys General (AGs) of a number of states into whether or not Exxon Mobile committed fraud, given that the company had scientific research dating back decades showing that climate change was a real threat, and yet spent decades vocally and publically denying climate change. The investigations were prompted, in part, by research into the issue, conducted by several media outlets and NGOs, including the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The fact that an oil company was at the forefront of climate science research and yet continued to deny the threat in order to promote their products is disturbing, but, sadly, not surprising or unprecedented; tobacco companies did something very similar and were similarly investigated for it. What is surprising is that the CSST has decided to get involved in this by blatantly siding with Exxon Mobile. Earlier this year the CSST launched an investigation into whether or not Exxon Mobile’s right to free speech had been violated by the fraud investigations and, as part of their investigation, the CSST been issuing subpoenas for the AGs of several states as well as for representatives from the NGOs involved.

To put that another way, in an issue that has a group of scientists and AGs on one side and an oil company on the other, the House Committee that is supposed to be focused on science is actively working to protect the oil company. This case is not just strange, it’s legally unprecedented; Congress has never before issued a subpoena for a state AG. The legal and constitutional issues around this are why CSST had to have Wednesday’s hearing to affirm that they believe they have the right to this course of action.

This is a new level of Federal Government overreach and there are at least two potential reasons this is a huge problem. This is a Republican-controlled committee in a Republican-controlled House. The GOP is supposed to fight for limited government. The CSST attempting to intervene in state’s investigations is the opposite of that, even the Democrats on the committee believe this is an abuse of federal power. So, one possibility is that this signals a new direction for the Republican Party of promoting the expansion of federal government power. If that’s the case then it would appear the task of limiting the size and scope of the federal government has fallen to the Libertarian party alone and they are probably not up to the challenge.

Alternatively, this is not a sign of some new big government agenda item from the GOP. Rather, the members of this committee have decided to go against their party’s values and enact a big government intervention in this particular instance. If that’s the case, that is also bad news. There is no good reason why Exxon Mobile would need federal protection from fraud investigations being conducted at the state level. The investigations are being conducted legally by state AGs and the CSST issuing subpoenas is not at all the normal means of addressing free speech issues, so there is no legal issue that seems to warrant the committee’s involvement. The majority of publishing climate scientists agree that climate change is real and man-made, so this is not a science issue, and a majority of Republican voters also accept that climate change is real, so this is not an issue of standing up for constituents’ beliefs. There are, however, some bad reasons why the CSST may be going out of its way to help Exxon Mobile. Exxon Mobile spends millions on lobbying each year and a number of the CSST Committee Members appear to own Exxon Mobile shares, including former CSST Chair F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI).

Whatever their motives, with Wednesday’s hearing concluded, the CSST seems determined to continue down this road of stretching their federal power in order to try and shield Exxon Mobile from states’ investigations. Like climate change, the effects of this new level of Republican-endorsed government overreach will probably be long lasting, unpredictable, and very, very difficult to control.

Alexis Chapman is a Political Consultant and Writer specializing in all types of policy analysis, from international law to local ordinances. She’s lived in Australia, Ghana, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas and has worked for small and large NGOs, state legislature, industry associations, and a variety of publications. She is a regular contributor to Political Storm.

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