Two weeks ago, the science-averse Texas Republican who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology sent out letters clearly meant to scare off the 17 state attorneys general investigating potential climate fraud perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry. This week, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh struck back with a withering reply that should make his constituents proud.
"You state, without any foundation, that the actions of this office 'may even amount to an abuse of prosecutorial discretion,'" Mr. Frosh writes in the letter to Rep. Lamar Smith dated Tuesday. "If you have any basis whatsoever for that assertion, please let us know what it is. Absent such explanation, your letter looks like an attempt to intimidate this office or to thwart it from performing its constitutional functions."
Bravo, Mr. Frosh. In his letter, Maryland's top prosecutor also reminded the chairman that his office investigates based on "facts and solid principles of law" and declined to hand over to him the records and other privileged communications from that investigation. He also took a shot at Mr. Smith's deadline of May 30 for a response, which was Memorial Day when state offices are closed, and expressed "hope that you joined us" in honoring the sacrifices made by active duty members of the U.S. military.
At the heart of this urinating contest is a serious matter: What the attorneys general are looking into is whether energy companies like ExxonMobil have crossed the line into criminal behavior in their attempts to knowingly sabotage scientific evidence of man-made climate change. At issue, for instance, is whether the companies may have deliberately deceived investors and consumers about the consequences of burning their products and thus deserve to be held accountable.
Critics like Mr. Smith who work at the beck and call of the big oil companies have tried to portray this as a witch hunt that is threatening First Amendment rights. But even free speech rights do not shield the user from consequences of lying that puts people in harm's way. If, for example, you manufacture a pesticide that you know to be poisonous to children, you don't have a constitutionally protected right to claim it isn't.
Climate science has been so well established for so long that this is a legitimate line of inquiry. Members of Congress may feel free to prevaricate about the threat posed by rising sea levels, melting glaciers, loss of farmland and freshwater resources and worsening weather, but surely there ought to be consequences if a for-profit company knowingly tells stockholders patent falsehoods (and then those investors make decisions about their life savings without realizing they've been lied to). If that's not fraud, what is?
We don't know whether the attorneys general can make a case. Large companies have armies of lawyers to shield them from such inquiries. But there's enough smoke here that it's reasonable to be looking out for a fire. For a member of Congress to seek to thwart a state-level investigation of potentially criminal behavior is the kind of "Big Brother" federalism that conservatives claim to despise.
Much has been written in recent weeks about how Republicans running for office this fall may have to distance themselves from Donald Trump. Perhaps that should also go for Lamar Smith and the House leadership that backs him. What's the difference between Mr. Trump and his birther fanatics, many of whom still deny the legitimacy of Barack Obama's presidency, and those who still deny that greenhouse gases have a warming effect on the planet? Objectively, not that much.
This isn't the first time Representative Smith has tried to use his position to bully public servants. He has famously subpoened climate scientists and held witch hunt hearings to intimidate the real experts in what's happening to the planet. Indeed, it's been noted that he's already issued more subpoenas in the last three years than the committee had produced in the previous half-century. That's someone who deserves to be called out. Kudos to Mr. Frosh for standing up to this windbag and protecting Maryland's interests.