Democrats lost control of the House but expanded their Senate majority, giving them greater power to issue subpoenas that party senators say they plan to use to investigate price gouging and other inequities in corporate America.
Democratic committee and subcommittee chairs say they plan to call on corporations to provide more information about how they price prescription drugs, health insurance plans and other goods and services that have soared in cost in recent years.
They also plan to grill corporate executives over their private discussions about how respond to climate change and over how they use customers’ personal information.
And they will demand answers on corporate efforts to crack down on misinformation and inappropriate content targeted toward minors across social media platforms.
“It’s going to mean that our committees will have greater oversight ability, subpoena power,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) told reporters this week of expanding the Democratic majority to 51 seats.
“Subpoena power can deal with corporate corruption and inequities and other problems throughout the country,” he said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is expected to become the next chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, says he plans to launch investigations into several industries, with a special focus on what he says is price gouging in the pharmaceutical drug industry.
“We are working on our priorities right now but it goes without saying that the committee has broad jurisdiction over health, labor, education and we are and will be prepared to take on very powerful special interests who are ripping off the American people,” he told The Hill.
Sanders said he’ll have more power to dig up information about corporate pricing practices and argued that Congress has not done enough on the issue.
“We pay twice as much per capita as other countries for health care, we pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. The oil companies are making record-breaking profits, ripping us off. So I think there’s a lot to be looked at in those areas,” he said.
Fellow leading liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said that she’s “still working on the list” of industries to investigate, adding she has a “wide range.”
“We now have more tools for oversight,” she said. “We have less room to pass legislation because of the loss of the House, but sharper oversight tools in the Senate.”
Warren predicted that corporate CEOs will be more willing to comply with Senate Democratic requests for information knowing they may otherwise face a subpoena and a day in court.
“Even when we ask politely for the CEOs and billionaires to show up, everyone now knows it’s backed up with the possibility of getting a subpoena,” she said.
The serious consequences of failing to comply with a congressional subpoena were underscored this summer when Trump adviser Stephen Bannon was found guilty on two counts of contempt of Congress for failing to appear for a deposition and refusing to produce documents, despite a subpoena.
He was sentenced to four months in prison.
On most Senate committees, the chairs and ranking minority members have standing authority to issue subpoenas but they must use it jointly.
If a ranking member refuses to go along with a chair’s subpoena request, it requires a majority vote of the committee to issue a demand for testimony or documents.
Under the current organization of the Senate, where the number of seats on each committee are evenly divided, it has been very difficult for any Democratic chairs to muster enough votes to override a Republican ranking member who balks at a subpoena.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees, said that members of his party were “straight-jacketed” over the past two years because of the limits posed by the evenly divided Senate.
“We couldn’t even think seriously about using investigative tools,” he said.
That will change in January.
“We’re not just going to issue subpoenas willy-nilly without good cause because we want to maintain the credibility of the power and the process, and there may be challenges in court,” Blumenthal.
“I would anticipate it will be focused and strategic,” he said.
Blumenthal, who is in line to become chairman of the Commerce panel’s Consumer Production and Product Safety Subcommittee, said he has conducted hearings on Big Tech companies driving “toxic content” to kids, but didn’t have teeth to back up his queries.
“There was some cooperation from Big Tech companies but we had no access to documents or even perhaps key witnesses that we might have had through subpoena power,” he said.
Blumenthal says he wants to look more closely into what he called the “fiasco” of Ticketmaster’s sale of Taylor Swift tour tickets, when fans were locked out of the opportunity to buy tickets, suffered a variety of glitches or had to wait for hours without getting anything. Some floor seats wound up being offered for more than $10,000 and even $20,000 dollars.
“That merger is under investigation or Ticketmaster is by the Department of Justice but we have a responsibility to oversee the potential misuse of monopolistic power and abuses like holding back tickets and selling to scalpers,” Blumenthal said, referring to the merger between Ticketmaster and Live Nation Entertainment, Inc.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who is in line to become chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said he’s interested in investigating what energy company companies are saying about climate change behind closed doors and how their private strategy deliberations may diverge radically from their company’s public message about trying to stem global warming.
“I think the House has already done some good work on the oil and gas industry and has obtained a lot of documents showing the discrepancy between the external voices of the industry and what they say when they’re talking to each other internally. I think we can continue to work on that for sure,” Whitehouse said.
“They talk green and when they think nobody is listening, the real industry position emerges,” he said.