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 in the Trump era and beyond.
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 to arguing in favor of impeachment and aggressive pandemic-related oversight — our case has rested on a set of core observations:
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.
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 this one. While Donald Trump has utterly failed at the task of being president, he has successfully commanded the conversation over the past four years. By inundating the public with erratic statements and alarming, often violent actions, Trump has made it difficult to keep up or to make sense of what is happening. Oversight, however, can help lawmakers to organize these chaotic elements into a single, commanding narrative: in this case, that Trump has worked from his first day in office to enrich friends and benefactors while contemptuously stomping on everyone else. Time and time again we have called on the House Democratic majority to spotlight this “kitchen table” corruption.
Better to Have Tried and Failed
Most importantly, the Revolving Door Project has advocated for aggressive oversight because inaction is not an option in the face of this administration’s abuses. With each unchecked transgression, this president and his lackeys only grow bolder. Lawmakers entrusted with public power have no honorable choice but to use it. And, as we argued here, even when their efforts fail, they are better off for having made the attempt.
Donald Trump’s astonishingly corrupt reign has made the need for oversight all the more apparent, but the observations laid out here will apply long past the end of this remarkable era. For lawmakers committed to advancing the public interest, oversight offers a powerful means by which to hold the powerful to account and ensure that governing institutions are working for the many.
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.
September 22, 2020 | The New Republic
On Friday night, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death shocked an already reeling country. What came next, however, was sadly unsurprising. Mere hours after Ginsburg’s passing, McConnell had already affirmed that he would hold a vote for Trump’s nominee to fill the vacancy, contravening the ersatz standard he set out in 2016. Or, as Senator Chris Murphy put it, “Nobody’s word means anything in this place anymore. All that matters is raw power.” It’s a bit of a belated realization: Republicans are unafraid to use their power to achieve their desired ends. Will Democrats respond in kind?
September 18, 2020 | Salon
The anxiety over changes and irregularities with the United States Postal Service (USPS) in August finally spilled over. A functioning postal service undergirds many of our society’s most basic functions, so there was no shortage of reasons to be alarmed. However, one concern—the threat to November’s election—overwhelmingly rose to the top. And the public outcry over that threat pushed a normally lethargic House majority into action, winning some mild but incomplete reversals from USPS.
August 20, 2020 | The Daily Beast
The crisis at the Postal Service has been building and accelerating for months with virtually no official response. Over the past two weeks, however, it reached a crescendo that even the country’s remarkably confrontation-averse opposition party could not ignore. In a matter of days, overwhelming grassroots pressure pushed House Democrats from seemingly having no plan to executing a rapid return to Washington, D.C., getting a hearing with the postmaster general on the calendar for next week and winning a promise from Louis DeJoy to cease operational changes until after the election.
August 05, 2020 | The American Prospect
In 2018, Democrats ran and won on a platform to hold President Trump and his cronies accountable. Many observers expected to be treated to a full schedule of oversight programming in the succeeding Congress, with a nearly endless stream of smug incompetents being caught in their lies and obfuscations. Some even dared to hope that the oversight fervor might spill over to another breed of smug incompetents: corporate CEOs. But, alas, the promised enthusiasm for oversight never seemed to materialize, let alone spread to new targets. (As usual, House Financial Services Committee chairwoman Maxine Waters, who confronted big bank CEOs within months of assuming control of her committee, stands out as a rare exception).
July 28, 2020
We urge the Antitrust Subcommittee to aggressively question each CEO about their hiring practices, and pass sweeping ethics reforms to close this revolving door once and for all.
July 24, 2020
During the 2018 midterms, Democrats promised to act as a much-needed check on a lawless president. Over a year and a half later, however, it is evident they have failed. From the moment House Democrats took control, Revolving Door Project (RDP) has been watching to see that they uphold their promises ready to elevate examples of good oversight and highlight areas where they were falling short. Unfortunately, there have been very few opportunities to do the former and an abundance of examples of the latter.
July 24, 2020
For each member of Trump’s Cabinet, the Cabinet Oversight Tracker records the date on which they last testified before their House committee of jurisdiction, the total number of times they’ve testified before that committee since January 2019 and the number of days they have gone without testifying.
July 17, 2020
Last fall, Democrats ran and won on an anti-corruption platform. The Revolving Door Project (RDP) is committed to ensuring that members of the new majority fulfill their promises to bring accountability to Trump, his powerful allies, and corporate bad actors. Oversight is an incredibly powerful tool that can shine a light on overlooked issues, unearth answers about clandestine misbehavior, and generate consensus around reforms.
July 17, 2020
As we wrote at the American Prospect in January, Neal should have requested Trump’s tax returns right away and after that easy part of the committee’s job was over, proceeded to more complex oversight. (alas, Neal has not yet taken our advice)
July 13, 2020 | The American Prospect
Don’t let the headlines fool you. The Supreme Court’s decision last Thursday in Trump v. Mazars doesn’t deserve much celebration. Although the Court upheld Congress’s right to investigate the president as a general matter, it placed new restrictions on that power and punted on the specific question at hand: Can Congress get immediate access to President Trump’s financial records through his accounting firm? With the case potentially headed for many more months of litigation, there is a significant chance the president’s records will not be made public before the election this fall.
July 10, 2020
In a pair of decisions released this morning, the Supreme Court rejected President Trump’s claims of “absolute” immunity from criminal investigation or congressional scrutiny. The victory, however, is incomplete and underscores that Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal’s delays in requesting Trump’s tax returns likely cost the American people dearly in terms of presidential transparency.
June 09, 2020
House Democrats are not powerless in the face of Senate intransigence. Democrats therefore have a responsibility to use the powers they have, very much including stringent and overdue oversight.
May 20, 2020
In the space of just a few weeks, the coronavirus outbreak has called into question almost every aspect of the political consensus of the last few decades. As it turns out, selling government for parts (aka “privatizing” or “reinventing” government), rolling back regulations, starving governing bodies of resources, and holding those who attempt to serve the public good in contempt, has left us exceedingly vulnerable.
May 19, 2020 | Washington Monthly
Life under COVID-19 is awash in tragedy and frustration. People are stuck in their homes. Millions have lost their jobs. Front-line healthcare providers don’t have the personal protective gear and other equipment they need. What makes it all even worse is the sense that so much of this was avoidable.
April 28, 2020
Many Americans might not have heard of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) before COVID-19. In fact, the small executive agency has been involved in the federal government’s response to some of the largest economic crises and natural disasters over the past two decades. This time around, the SBA has been thrust front and center as it attempts to administer one of the largest loan programs in our nation’s history. But if our Congressional leaders had spent time understanding the SBA’s limitations, perhaps they would have paused before giving the agency free rein to hand out billions of taxpayer dollars.