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Senate Democrats plan to probe corporate abuses with new subpoena powers

A victory in Georgia gives Democratic committees the power to issue subpoenas without GOP support. NBC News spoke to key senators about their early plans for how to use it.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks at the Capitol on Dec. 8, 2022.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., at the Capitol on Thursday. Jemal Countess / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Two days after Democrats clinched an outright majority in the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden sent a letter to the CEO of the biopharmaceutical company Amgen seeking answers to a host of questions involving tax avoidance.

“In advance of potential public hearings and proposing new legislative changes, it is critical to understand how Amgen, a multinational pharmaceutical corporation based in the U.S. with annual sales of $26 billion primarily made to U.S. customers, paid a lower tax rate than a postal service worker or a preschool teacher,” Wyden, D-Ore., wrote in the Thursday letter, providing a Dec. 21 deadline for answers.

The subtext of the letter was clear: For now, this is a voluntary request; in a few weeks, the committee may not ask nicely.

A victory in Georgia this week gave Democrats a crucial 51st seat, breaking the power-sharing arrangement with Republicans they've had for two years under an evenly split Senate. Come next year, Democrats will have unilateral subpoena power in many committees to compel investigative targets to provide documents and testimony — without needing GOP support.

Wyden’s letter provides a glimpse into how Democrats intend to utilize that power. In interviews with NBC News, key Democratic senators signaled they are eying populist-themed investigations of corporate abuses, tax dodging, harmful “big tech” practices and powerful entities like drug makers and oil companies.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters on Wednesday that caucus leaders will meet to map out a path forward.

“Our committees will have greater oversight ability, subpoena power. And people say, well, it’s the Biden administration. Oh, no, no, no. Subpoena power can deal with corporate corruption and inequities, and other problems throughout the country,” he said.

Still, Democratic Senate sources said there will be limitations in the use of subpoenas, which in many cases require majority support on committees, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. One reason is that the 2024 Senate map is extremely challenging for Democrats, with three members defending seats in red states and another five in competitive purple states. Those senators may be particularly sensitive about supporting subpoenas that come in partisan flavors.

There’s a recognition among Democrats that being perceived as issuing subpoenas for political gain could backfire. Conversely, Senate sources believe that using it to probe powerful — and perhaps less sympathetic — figures may win them public support.

Asked how Democrats should use subpoena power for the next two years, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., replied: “Carefully.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Democrats should draw a contrast between their investigations and those of the new Republican-controlled House, which plans to aggressively investigate President Joe Biden, his administration’s policies and the business dealings of some in Biden’s family.

“I don’t view it as a tit-for-tat,” Blumenthal said. “We’re going to be doing serious investigations of substantive wrongdoing — not politics or trumped-up impeachment investigations.”

Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown, a Democrat who faces re-election in 2024 in Republican-leaning Ohio, said his committee’s historical practice is to use subpoenas “very sparingly” — but that there could be exceptions.

“We are thinking of subpoenaing Sam Bankman-Fried,” Brown said.

“I want to know what happened with FTX,” he said. “And it’s much bigger than FTX. This is a whole industry that we’ve been very skeptical of. ... A lot of people have gotten rich. A lot of people have lost not small amounts of money but their entire savings. People have bet and come out better or worse, but it really is not showing a real public purpose, and we expect to explore that in this area.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who expects to chair the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for the next two years, said he will use subpoena power “intelligently and judiciously.”

“Given the fact that we are looking at an unprecedented level of corporate greed, that we’re looking at union-busting, that we’re looking at extremely high prices in health care, prescription drugs that are caused by the greed of the industries — I think we have to take a hard look at these issues,” he said. “And if using subpoena power becomes necessary, then that’s something we can do.”

Other Democrats floated industries that could be the targets of the party's subpoena powers.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said the Senate should look into the oil and gas industry and investigate its rhetoric versus actions on climate change. While Blumenthal said the party should also take on “monopolistic and predatory action,” citing Ticketmaster and the airline industry as examples.

Democrats should use subpoena power to “target waste and fraud in government” as well as “abuses in the private sector and big tech — for example, driving toxic and destructive content for kids with algorithms," Blumenthal said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said the power will come in handy with prominent actors who seek to stonewall Congress.

“Oversight is a critical function of Congress. We can always start with invitations,” she said in an interview. “But having subpoena power for CEOs and billionaires who think they don’t have to come to Congress to explain themselves will be very valuable.”