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Op-Ed | Talking Points Memo | September 27, 2019

Now That The Impeachment Probe Is Official, House Dems Must Ramp Up Other Oversight

Congressional Oversight

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In soliciting election interference from Ukraine’s president, Trump did what had long seemed impossible; he committed an offense that even the most impeachment-phobic lawmakers couldn’t ignore. You don’t have to agree that this behavior is materially worse than other known misconduct — we certainly don’t — to celebrate that this particularly flagrant misstep sent the Democratic caucus over the edge. And since House Democrats are no longer paralyzed by a fear of falling into an unwanted impeachment inquiry, it is our hope that the Democratic caucus will finally begin to act like the opposition party it was elected to be.

Even with impeachment and Ukraine taking center stage, House Democrats must work to hold every member of this administration accountable by any means at their disposal. Fighting Trump’s corruption on behalf of the rich and against ordinary people is in line with the values of the Constitution and would be good politics to boot.

Since the day Democrats took control of the House, they have been more concerned with avoiding accusations of overreach than with fulfilling their promise to act as a check on Trump. And from the beginning, Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear that she considered impeachment, under almost any circumstances, the most dangerous form of overreach. In order to avoid a situation in which impeachment would be necessary, Pelosi and her team inhibited serious, high energy oversight of the sort that might yield an undeniable cause to impeach.

That is how we found ourselves eight months into House Democrats’ tenure with almost no important oversight to show for it. Most House committees have treated oversight as a box to be checked by perfunctory hearings. Real efforts to uphold their constitutional duty to counter Trump’s corruption through, for example, combative hearings and litigation to enforce subpoenas, have been the exception rather than the rule.

The Ukraine story demonstrates that the slightest bit of digging would turn up explosive results, and it simultaneously acts as an indictment of House Democrats’ trepidation. This story is coming to light, in part, because one committee broke with this cowardly consensus and fought to gain access to and publicize the whistleblower’s concerns.

How many other real and would-be whistleblowers would have benefited from similarly strident committees? We know of at least one: in July, an IRS whistleblower went to the House Ways and Means Committee with information about potential interference in the IRS’ annual audits of every president’s tax returns. Rather than seeking to bring those allegations to public attention, Richard Neal quietly folded it into his lawsuit for Trump’s tax returns. There are surely others, also.

With impeachment-phobia behind them and an inquiry underway, Democrats have the chance to pursue many of these untapped and untouched examples of Trump’s abuses of power. This is important, because what we know is, surely, only the tip of the iceberg. While Trump may not have surrounded himself with the “best” people, as he claims, he does count among his ranks individuals more capable than Rudy Giuliani. What have they successfully kept hidden?

Equally important, this opening provides an opportunity to investigate abuses of power elsewhere in this administration. Not every relevant aspect of this administration’s corruption can be captured within the scope of an impeachment inquiry. It is not just Trump who has benefited from Democrats’ timidity, but Wilbur Ross, Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, Steven Mnuchin, Sonny Perdue, and many others. Effectively countering Trump and putting an end to his administration’s attacks on regular people means pursuing all those he has empowered.

This effort can and should proceed in parallel to impeachment. Six committees — Judiciary, Intelligence, Oversight and Reform, Foreign Affairs, Financial Services, and Ways and Means — will be pursuing investigations for the purposes of developing articles of impeachment. That leaves fourteen others that can immediately dedicate themselves to other oversight. The other six can also set out on their own, non-impeachment-related oversight as soon as they have finished their impeachment investigations.

What are we imagining? The Education and Labor Committee could, for example, investigate the dangerous mix of negligence, corruption and pure malice that is driving the Education Department’s vicious assaults on students and borrowers. Or the Agriculture Committee could dig into Secretary Perdue’s attacks on consumers, farmers, agency scientists and rural communities. Meanwhile, the House Transportation Committee might consider trying to get to the bottom of Elaine Chao’s relationship to her family business and its relationship to China. They could also see how Chao uses her cabinet seat to potentially help political allies and burn her foes. The possibilities go on and on.

Having overcome impeachment-phobia, Democrats are free to pursue these investigations with vigor. The days of polite document requests and endless patience must come to an end. By this point, this administration has proven that it has no intention to cooperate. That reality empowers lawmakers to strike a suitably aggressive posture and escalate if necessary. That means issuing subpoenas quickly and suing to enforce them the second the administration fails to comply. It also means seeking other creative means, like Congress’ power of the purse, to compel compliance.

When voters flooded their polling places last fall, they sent a message that they were fed up with this administration’s attacks on their healthcare, their paychecks and their well-being. In casting their votes for Democrats, they expected to get a party that would recognize the ways the Trump administration’s corruption is materially hurting them and would parry the continuous blows. Instead, they got a set of timid politicians who attempted to do the bare minimum and make it out to be bold opposition.

After months of failing these voters, however, Democrats have an opportunity to redeem themselves. Impeachment has arrived; they have nothing left to fear. Or rather, if a new motivating fear is helpful, they should recognize that unless they seize this chance, history is far more likely to judge them harshly for having failed to counter this administration’s attacks on the American people than for having been too strident.

Jeff Hauser is the founder and executive director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Eleanor Eagan is a Research Assistant at the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Congressional Oversight

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