Congressional Oversight

Whether in the executive branch or in Congress, the Revolving Door Project believes that political leaders need to think more creatively and energetically about how they can leverage the full range of their powers to advance the public interest. Over the last several years, this motivating principle has led us to dedicate significant time and energy to convincing the House Democratic majority of the need for congressional oversight that spotlights executive branch corruption and corporate wrongdoing. In the context of the Trump administration’s lawlessness and beyond, congressional oversight is a powerful — indeed essential — tool to uncover governmental and corporate abuse, enforce checks and balances, channel governmental resources towards issues of widespread public concern, and galvanize long-lasting political support. We at the Revolving Door Project believe that Congress must exploit this potential. 

Through op-eds, blog posts, letters, and interviews, we have sought to encourage congressional oversight at practically every turn. In all of that work — from pushing Rep. Richard Neal to request Trump’s tax returns and arguing in favor of impeachment to advocating aggressive pandemic-related oversight and meaningful investigation of the damage Trump caused to governing institutions and the civil service– our case has rested on a set of core observations:

Good Policy

Oversight has long been considered an essential component of congressional power and for good reason. In order to craft laws and continually institute necessary reforms, lawmakers need access to a wealth of information about the problems for which they seek solutions. Oversight also functions as a mechanism by which to enforce congressional will; investigatory powers help Congress to ensure that the laws it has written and passed are being carried out as intended.

Where voluntary compliance is not forthcoming, Congress has a variety of legal powers to ensure that it has access to the information it needs. Together with its considerable reputational and convening authority, these powers make Congress one of the most powerful fact finding institutions in the country. We at Revolving Door Project have consistently encouraged lawmakers to make use of this exceptional power to surface otherwise out of reach information about the Trump administration’s actions and corporate America’s behavior. Despite this administration’s unprecedented obstructionism, Congress nonetheless has the ability to obtain great swaths of information that are unavailable to almost any other party. 

Even when investigations do not lead directly to legislative action in the near-term, they may still produce clear real world results. It is not uncommon for both public and private sector officials to resign following appearances at particularly humiliating congressional hearings. Further, the very knowledge that Congress is investigating may discourage lawbreaking in the public and private sectors alike. 

Good Politics

For those lawmakers unconvinced by these benefits, there is at least one other reason to engage in aggressive, populist oversight: it’s great politics. As money floods our political system and even more overt forms of governmental and corporate corruption abound, many have lost faith that anyone in government has their interests at heart. Oversight that holds powerful actors — like practically any of this administration’s senior officials, BigTech, for-profit colleges, Wall Street, and on and on — to account for their transgressions can help to reverse the tide of cynicism by demonstrating that the government can work in the public interest. 

It is also a particularly powerful tool in the face of a presidential administration like Donald Trump’s. While Trump utterly failed at the task of being president, he successfully commanded the conversation over his four years in office. By inundating the public with erratic statements and alarming, often violent actions, Trump made it difficult to keep up or to make sense of what was happening. Oversight, however, could have helped lawmakers to organize these chaotic elements into a single, commanding narrative: in this case, that Trump worked from his first day in office to enrich friends and benefactors while contemptuously stomping on everyone else. 

Oversight in Trump’s Wake

Although Trump’s time in office has come to an end, there is an enduring need for oversight to uncover the full extent of the damage he caused. Although Trump waged many of his wars in public, lawmakers cannot ignore the possibility that other attacks were being carried out more quietly behind the scenes. Whether in the form of politicized hiring processes, corruptly awarded contracts, office reorganizations, or any number of other moves, left unaddressed this variety of attack could interfere with effective governance for years to come. 

For that reason, it will be essential that lawmakers resist the urge to simply move on from what has just occurred under Trump. Only by developing a comprehensive accounting of his administration’s abuses will it be possible to reverse them and ensure that they are not repeated. And for every Republican who cries that it is “politics” to identify new ways in which Trump’s corruption and incompetence weakened our country — if the facts have a political bias and the outcome is to punish a political party for its leader’s misdeeds, well, isn’t accountability what it is needed to make democracy work?

And if this means that the Biden Administration is on its toes to avoid repeating the post-presidency recriminations Trump is owed — that would be a nonpartisan good thing!

Below you will find some of the project’s writing and research on congressional oversight. For a selection of quotes and interviews on the topic, please visit this page.

January 19, 2021 | Slate

Eleanor Eagan

Op-Ed

Congressional OversightGovernment Capacity

Trump Has Quietly Hollowed Out the Government

Over four years, federal workers were ignored, subjected to retaliation, and fired for articulating politically inconvenient truths or standing in the way of President Donald Trump’s attacks against the public. By all accounts, that is set to change under President-elect Joe Biden. But while new attacks may not be forthcoming, the fissures from old ones will remain, threatening the federal government’s structural integrity unless the next administration and Congress take action. For all that we know about Trump’s assaults on the federal workforce, there is likely more that remains hidden. Up to this point, Democratic leadership has failed to make combating or uncovering these incursions a priority. For the sake of the Biden administration’s success, that will need to change.

December 03, 2020 | The American Prospect

Yevgeny Shrago

Op-Ed

2020 Election/TransitionCongressional Oversight

How Democrats Can Stop Trump’s Transition Sabotage

Donald Trump’s attempted coup shouldn’t draw attention away from his administration’s day-to-day corruption. His post-election firing of federal officials who have contradicted him and installation of unqualified loyalists shows that Trump will try to salvage the loss with internal sabotage of the incoming administration. With less than two months to go, things will only get worse, unless Democrats use the upcoming spending negotiations to stop him.

November 09, 2020 | The American Prospect

Eleanor Eagan

Op-Ed

Congressional OversightCoronavirus

Donna Shalala Encapsulated Pelosi’s Embrace of Passivity as a Strategy

Democrats were expected to expand their House majority, but instead saw many seats slip through their hands. With several races uncalled, the majority could be cut by as much as seven to ten seats.

That includes the seat of Nancy Pelosi’s close ally Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL), whom Pelosi chose for the CARES Act’s Congressional Oversight Commission (which monitors the Federal Reserve bailout). Shalala’s course over the past two years, from part of the promising blue wave to low-energy oversight leader, is the story of Democratic leadership in the 116th Congress in a nutshell.

November 02, 2020 | Talking Points Memo

Eleanor Eagan Yevgeny Shrago

Op-Ed

Congressional OversightGovernment Capacity

A Lame Duck Trump Admin Will Do All It Can To Pilfer Before Jan. Dems Must Be Ruthless In Thwarting It.

The way tomorrow’s election will go remains highly uncertain. If Trump loses, however, there is no doubt that his administration will set about destroying and pilfering all that it can. Already, as they stare down the barrel of electoral defeat, Trump and his entourage are previewing their lame-duck plan to shovel every federal dollar they can to family and friends.