How to Win the Age of Oversight

Lawmakers should avoid grandstanding — and look beyond Russia.

January 7, 2019

After sweeping into majority rule with a 40-seat victory in last November’s midterm elections, House Democrats now must doggedly exercise their most important constitutional function. They must earnestly and honestly investigate the most dangerous and dysfunctional administration in the nation’s history. They must do so relentlessly, and with courage when the pushback comes. And they must do so in a style and manner that reassures all reasonable Americans that at least one half of Congress is able to act as a check on presidential power.

That means the coming subpoenas and hearings can’t and shouldn’t just be about the Trump team’s Russia ties, and how all those shady connections may have influenced the 2016 election. That should be the easy part. Instead, Democrats must keep reminding Americans that most of the corruption of this administration is the traditional kind, having nothing to do with what Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating. 

Let’s start with the White House itself and all of the evident financial conflicts under which the president and his family labor. Say the phrase “emoluments clause” and people’s eyes glaze over. Explain to them how the Trumps keep benefiting financially, and personally, from the decisions the administration is making in the name of the American people and folks perk up. Show them how the past two years have been one long act of self-dealing and grift and you fire them up. And any inquiry into Trump’s conflicts starts with his tax returns. It’s a good sign that House Democrats already have unveiled a bill to force their release. They need to be willing to use their subpoena power in the effort, then be ready to defend in court their right to access them.

But it isn’t just about the White House. There are conflicts and basic questions of competency everywhere. Margaret Taylor at Lawfare sets forth an extensive list of the ways in which Democratic lawmakers can exercise legislative oversight over Trump’s national security and foreign policy choices beyond the question of the president’s lingering embrace of Putin. Domestically, too, there’s an extensive list of congressional oversight that’s needed. There’s the Interior Department, run so loosely and brazenly by the newly-departed Ryan Zinke that DOJ is reportedly probing whether Zinke lied to Interior’s own inspector general.

Scott Pruitt didn’t even last as long at the Environmental Protection Agency as Zinke did at Interior – quite a quinella those two when it comes to partisan hacks captive to the industries they are supposed to regulate. But Pruitt still left plenty of scandals for a working committee to chew on. House Democrats should move quickly not just to highlight how corrupt the EPA has become but how that corruption has affected ordinary Americans. As The New York Times reported deeply two weeks ago, the regulatory rollbacks are making dirtier the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land on which we live.

There’s the Commerce Department, where Wilbur Ross has so many obvious conflicts of interest, and so many poor explanations for them, that they threaten to overshadow the dirty trick he’s tried to pull by rejiggering the U.S. Census to favor Republicans. Over at Housing and Urban Development, meanwhile, Ben Carson is quietly dismantling decades of progress. He’s the anti-bureaucratic bureaucrat, killing the agency Trump picked him to run through a series of heartless and perhaps unlawful measures.

Speaking of Trump-era Cabinet officers eager to dismantle the agencies they lead, there is Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, who has never been forced to answer, under oath, why she has been so eager to restrict or abandon federal oversight of the for-profit college industry at a time when we are learning more about the ways some of those “schools” are preying on students. And how about bringing in the secretary of agriculture in the next few days to remind everyone that some of the primary victims of the government shutdown are the millions of the nation’s neediest who rely on food stamps to live?

And then there is the Justice Department. Beyond Matthew Whitaker’s illegitimate tenure as attorney general. Beyond the questions that linger about his alleged interference in the Russia investigation. Beyond what’s coming next with William Barr, the attorney general nominee, House Democrats have plenty to ask about. Like how the Bureau of Prisons has devolved into an institution where official misconduct goes rewarded, not punished. Or how Jeff Sessions further undermined police reform in a memo he issued shortly before he left office last year. Or how feckless the Feds plan to continue to be when it comes to defending voting rights.

It’s impossible to take the politics out of a group of politicians; impossible, that is, to expect that the House Democrats will act with as much discretion as have Mueller and his investigators. The federal prosecutors have done the bulk of their work in secret and the law allows that to be so. The congressional hearings to come, on the other hand, will be public, at least in part, and the more discrete and professional Democratic legislators can be during the investigations to come, the more likely those investigations will gain traction with the American people. Please spare us the grandstanding and stick with the facts, those stubborn facts.

The good news for those of us who welcome legitimate oversight? House Democrats have hired several smart, tough, determined lawyers to help steer them through the fight to come. And they will need those lawyers. First Trump and his congressional allies will try to delay the reckoning by pretending to compromise and collaborate on investigations. When that fails, next will come from the White House allegations of partisanship and court motions trying to quash subpoenas. Finally, perhaps, we may even see the sort of willful contempt of court that Trump has defended in other circumstances.

The age of real, meaningful oversight is here. And for all the Republican hand-wringing over Democratic inquiries into Trump’s Russia ties, the truth is there is plenty of other evidence of corruption and misconduct to keep lawmakers busy and the rest of us riveted from now until January 2021. 

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Image: Classen Rafael/EyeEm)