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Op-Ed | The American Prospect | August 19, 2022

Where Has Congress Been on Trump Holdovers?

Congressional OversightEthics in GovernmentExecutive BranchGovernanceRevolving Door
Where Has Congress Been on Trump Holdovers?

Effective oversight could force President Biden’s hand to thin out the bad actors inside his own government.

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The public hearings conducted by the House Select Committee have exceeded many Democrats’ expectations, not only as conversation-changing political theater, but also as a venue to uncover vital information. For example, the country now knows that Secret Service text messages from January 6th were deleted from phones shortly thereafter in what the agency has called a “planned migration.” This is what congressional oversight activities should do: extract truths from the halls of power and pursue public accountability accordingly.

In contrast, only now has the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Reform issued an ultimatum to Joseph Cuffari, inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, who learned in December 2021 about the text messages’ disappearance but failed to report it to Congress, and then scuttled his office’s plan to recover them in February 2022.

The Oversight Committee is finally demanding that Cuffari turn over requested documents and allow Homeland Security personnel to be interviewed by August 23—or else they’ll have “no choice but to consider alternate measures to ensure your compliance,” likely a subpoena. We will soon learn how forceful they’re willing to be. But long before the revelation of the missing text messages—implicating not only the Secret Service but top Homeland Security and Pentagon officials as well—came to light, Cuffari should have been a source of concern for one simple reason: He was hand-picked by Donald Trump.

As we have often argued, any official who survived Trump’s intensive ideological purity tests and met other fealty measures during that administration functionally disqualified themselves from subsequent government service. President Biden should have removed these bad actors from office on day one of his administration, a call which he continues to fail to heed. As long as Trump’s chosen people hold power throughout the federal government, his corruptive influence lives on—making this near-ritualistic uncovering of one ethics crisis after another unsurprising.

With bad-faith Republican pressure on Biden to avoid seeming “political” by firing top Trump appointees, congressional Democrats can offer counterpressure, demonstrating the need for noncompromised executive agency leadership through deep scrutiny of the holdovers. From FBI Director Chris Wray’s hyper-surveillance of Black activists to IRS chief Charles Rettig’s refusal to disclose Trump’s tax returns to Louis DeJoy’s rejection of a zero-carbon Postal Service fleet and degradation of the mail service, it’s been easy to make the case for their replacement since day one, even setting blanket de-Trumpification aside.

Many agency weaknesses are the result of Trumpian malfeasance, as the Secret Service scandal demonstrates. The failed federal response to Hurricane Maria and the decline of the Postal Service under DeJoy are obvious targets for congressional scrutiny, but the list is long. Congress has an opportunity to create political momentum to root out incompetence and make government work better.

Congressional calls for new agency leadership have had successes, when they’ve actually taken aim. Dick Durbin (D-IL), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called for the firing of Bureau of Prisons chief Michael Carvajal in the wake of scandalous Associated Press investigations last fall. Carvajal resigned in January, and was finally replaced by Colette Peters this August.

Giving Biden cover to fire the last of Trump’s cronies is not the only function that congressional oversight should provide under a friendly administration. Regardless of who sits in the White House, congressional committees have the opportunity to educate the public about the harms being done to them, their causes, and the steps the government will take to remedy them. Congressional Democrats shouldn’t shy away from pushing federal agencies to fulfill their responsibilities under a Democratic president. In these cases, constructive criticism is also public service, and partisan loyalty must not supplant the public interest.

This could look like connecting the dots between “kitchen table” issues like rising gas prices and the cost of insulin to the corporate exploitation behind them, and then mobilizing the government to respond. Committee investigations, when conducted well, have many tools to hold corporations accountable for harming the public, and can force corporate oligarchs out of the comfortable cover of their boardrooms and into the harsh light of the public eye.

Of course, most corporate scandals are inevitably aided and abetted by critical failures of government, representing another crucial topic for congressional oversight. When Congress investigates corporate wrongdoing, it inevitably gains insight into the regulatory vulnerabilities and lapses that allowed corporations such leeway in the first place. These investigations can piece together a clearer picture of system failures and how to fix them through targeted omnibus funding provisions, executive branch rulemaking, and even legislation.

On far too many critical issues, for far too long, Congress has left its public stranded without these crucial oversight measures. No wonder that Congress is often apathetic to the systemic underfunding of federal agencies: The case for adequately funding these institutions is much harder to make, and much less politically expedient, when you don’t know what they could be doing.

One headline-grabbing place for Congress to sharpen its oversight authorities could be opening an investigation into this summer’s airline chaos, and the Department of Transportation’s (lack of) response. Pete Buttigieg, as transportation secretary, has somehow almost entirely escaped official scrutiny for the failures of his department to address the crises percolating within DOT’s realm of responsibility. So why hasn’t Congress compelled competency out of him?

Responsibility for that falls on Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. DeFazio has every authority to bring Buttigieg before Congress to answer for these disappointments. Such a reckoning could provide the public with insight into what’s exacerbating this rash of cancellations and delays, and the government’s tools to intervene. Plus, receiving negative feedback might finally motivate the young presidential hopeful to address these crises (and those still to come) in defense of his own career and reputation.

In contrast to DeFazio’s reticence, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) provides a good example of exactly what congressional oversight should look like. Unlike many of her congressional colleagues, DeLauro has dedicated significant time and resources to seeking accountability for the infant formula crisis. DeLauro delivered scathing remarks at an Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, and has since introduced legislation getting at the heart of the supply and safety vulnerabilities that saw infants left without sustenance this spring. She has also continued to advocate accountability measures for the Food and Drug Administration and its commissioner, Robert Califf, while pushing for robust structural changes to the FDA’s food side so that these issues are not allowed to occur again. In short, DeLauro is doing exactly what she should.

While oversight offers Congress the chance to educate the public on crucial issues, it also provides lawmakers a powerful opportunity to listen to their constituents, and tangibly demonstrate a commitment to doing something about the issues that they care about. The opportunities are just about limitless. Imagine what the equivalent of the January 6th hearings, but investigating fossil fuel companies’ campaigns of deception, could do to raise the baseline of public knowledge, for example.

Donald Trump broke many of the counterbalancing oversight mechanisms intended to keep our government functional, and his cronies like Cuffari continue this destructive legacy more than a year and a half into Biden’s administration. Congress has a perennial opportunity, and a serious responsibility, to step up as a watchdog while many parts of the government remain in disarray, gutted under the supervision of the last executive. Congress has its own serial dysfunction to contend with, but when it comes to oversight responsibilities, its tools are intact and underutilized. For all of our sake, it needs to step up to the plate.

IMAGE: “Representatives George Miller, Nancy Pelosi and Rosa DeLauro at a Steering and Policy Committee hearing on Small Business” by George Miller is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Congressional OversightEthics in GovernmentExecutive BranchGovernanceRevolving Door

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