This newsletter was originally published on our Substack. Read and subscribe here.
The Washington Post last week ran a delightful little synopsis of Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) true passion: congressional oversight.
Bernie is revered for his willingness to hold corporations and their CEOs accountable for their villainy, and how he does so with extraordinary dexterity. Be it by ruthlessly interrogating Big Pharma executives for their murderous price gouging of lifesaving treatments or humiliating Howard Schultz for being a whiny billionaire union-buster, Bernie Sanders makes congressional oversight hearings fun. The fun he makes for himself and for the public he strives to give real voice to through speaking truth to power is not just gratifying; it also helps sharpen congressional oversight into a tool to actually achieve something.
Bernie is a member of a small (though seemingly growing) congressional club that is actually willing to occupy the stage of the hallowed halls of Congress to boldly defend the public interest. Similarly, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) public excoriation of Wells Fargo’s John Stumpf in 2016 contributed to his surprise resignation just a month later, and a scathing House Financial Services Committee report prompted the abrupt departures of two more Wells executives in 2020.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) has long been exceptional in her dedicated grilling of big bank executives for their abusive practices, and is further well-regarded for her persistent push for accountability in the White House during the Trump administration. Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) and her white board have been a staple of oversight hearings since her freshman term, using it to illustrate the sheer absurdity of Big Oil’s company line and to confront JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon with the blistering reality of his company’s stark pay disparities.
The oversight hearings conducted by folks like Sanders, Warren, Waters, and Porter get results because those members carefully craft their questioning to extract uncomfortable truths (or force the utterance of demonstrably false lies) from the villains seated before them. And their platform allows them to draw the public’s attention to the (often under-recognized) villains making people’s lives harder, allowing for the all-too-rare experience of public-facing accountability for powerful actors.
The historical power and impact of congressional oversight activities really can’t be overstated. Harry Truman eventually became President because of his oversight work as a Senator on the fraud and waste endemic to the War Department’s contracting system. The Senate’s near-1300 page report in 1974 on Watergate helped prompt Richard Nixon’s resignation mere months later. In 1975, the Senate’s Church Committee investigated a mass network of lawlessness and coordinated abuse of power by the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Internal Revenue Service, and the committee’s reports inspired swift congressional and executive action that sought to rein in the intelligence agencies. In 1994, the House’s famous hearings on Big Tobacco’s deadly conspiracy of lies turned the industry into a national laughingstock and inspired sweeping regulation that continues to this day.
Despite this, congressional hearings are at present more defined by the right’s gross grandstanding on everything from their overt racism to their most brazen corporate bootlicking, than as defenses of the public and its institutions. In truth, despite congressional oversight’s long legacy of crucial importance to the health of American culture, politics, and polity, the vast majority of Democratic representatives have stood idly by as their conservative colleagues have corrupted the practice. They have let opportunity after opportunity for critically necessary intervention pass them by.
That status quo simply cannot continue. In the coming weeks, we plan to launch a congressional oversight tracker to highlight examples of oversight done right, as well as missed opportunities to excoriate corporate bad actors.
An Unjust Supreme Court Shows Us That It’s Not Only Corporations Congress Needs To Keep Honest
There is no shortage of current issues that merit critical and public interrogations by Congressional Democrats. ProPublica’s bombshell reporting regarding Justice Clarence Thomas’ sweeping ethics failings and penchant for ultra-fine undisclosed gifts, for example, is high on that list. Some congressional oversight activities on the issue have already begun, with both the Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) chaired-Senate Judiciary Committee and the Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) chaired-Senate Financial Services Committee already holding hearings on various aspects of the issue. Yet, neither of these committees or their chairs have gone nearly far enough.
The Judiciary Committee’s first hearing on the ethics crisis at the Supreme Court was itself a debacle. First, Chief Justice John Roberts smugly refused to appear before the committee, claiming that it would undermine judicial independence. Then, Republicans invited the testimony of the not-so-Honorable Michael Mukasey, the pro-torture guy who refused to acknowledge that presidents are beholden to the law during his US Attorney nomination hearing in 2007. And when the Republicans got on the mic, the likes of election-denying Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) ignored the issue at hand and instead ranted about an imaginary “left-of-Lenin” Democratic agenda while throwing out Bible verses.
On the Democratic side of the aisle, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) did a great job of trying to distill the point that the Supreme Court has made itself grossly unaccountable to any standard of ethics (or anything else) for decades, and that that is a bad thing, actually.
Whitehouse’s statement was a highlight, but the rest of the hearing fell significantly short, as most other senators refused to even fully acknowledge the conservative court’s unparalleled contempt for the rule of law. All Supreme Court Justices should be accountable to a basic ethics regime that they have somehow so far evaded. Not all Supreme Court Justices, however, have willfully flaunted both the letter and the intent of existing law with the same flagrancy as some of their colleagues.
When villains are being villainous, it’s good politics and good policy to full-throatedly call them villains. Durbin and (most) Democrats this month, though, made the misguided decision not to.
Instead, they spent a good amount of time essentially pleading with Justices (who couldn’t even be bothered to show) and Republicans, to think of – and protect – the Court’s legitimacy. What Democrats fail to realize, let alone name, is that the Court has already destroyed its own legitimacy, and that there is no magical route to re-obtain it without first acknowledging, and then addressing, the rot at the heart of that well-earned mistrust.
As my colleague Dylan Gyauch-Lewis and I wrote in April, “Enough is enough. Durbin and the entire party need to finally fight the erosion of judicial integrity. The Supreme Court, and much of the federal judiciary, has turned away from even a veneer of respect for the law. A majority of justices on the Supreme Court were appointed by Presidents who lost the popular vote. Indeed, Republicans have held a majority on the Supreme Court’s bench since 1970, more than half a century ago. The courts — the Supreme Court in particular — have made themselves illegitimate. It is time to say so out loud and publicly challenge them for it.”
Durbin as Chair should take this message to heart and compel the testimonies of Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Clarence Thomas, and other relevant parties. Beyond that, he should use the authority of the committee he leads to finally launch an encompassing investigation into the clear ethics failings, and potential criminal violations of law, apparently ongoing at the Supreme Court. He and other Senate Democrats could actually work to restore faith in the Supreme Court—not by allowing Republicans to lie about and launder its corruption, but by acknowledging them publicly, and working towards real change that people want.
Durbin’s Democratic colleague at the Senate Finance Committee, Ron Wyden (D-OR), should complement that effort by pursuing Harlan Crow’s taxes and gift records as well as those of Justice Thomas himself. Wyden has already requested documentation of Crow’s financial relationship with Thomas, twice; a request Crow has thus far refused to produce. Instead of waiting on or hoping for either’s cooperation, Wyden should just exercise the unqualified authority vested in his committee and request the relevant records directly from the IRS itself. With questions swirling regarding whether Crow adequately followed gift tax laws, and Clarence Thomas’ personal financial disclosure containing glaring omissions, these figures’ tax returns could illustrate what laws and policies (if any) were violated and ultimately clarify the specific contours of the financial relationship between Crow and Thomas.
Almost a year ago, though regarding a very different issue, my colleague Hannah Story Brown and I wrote for the Prospect that “Congress has a perennial opportunity, and a serious responsibility, to step up as a watchdog […]. 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.”
Unfortunately, most Dems’ baffling disinterest in doing so remains remarkably persistent. Congressional oversight is one of the most obvious ways to creatively use the legislature’s authority to do popular things, create memorable moments, and hold corporations (and co-equal branches of government) to public account. Our elected officials should take advantage of the scores of Thomas-related scandals — and the widespread public interest in congressional oversight activities that they have inspired — to launch a new heyday of oversight dedicated to calling out corruption, misconduct, and other wrongdoings. If not now, when?
Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week:
The President Is Already in Litigation Over the Debt Ceiling
RELEASE: The Justice Department Should Not Defend The Legal Incoherence That Is The Debt Ceiling
98 Organizations and Individuals Call on the IPCC to Uplift Settled Science and to Reject the Influence of the Global Meat Industry
Release: New Letter Urges President to Make Leadership Change at Surface Transportation Board
No deal: Federal Workers Union asks U.S. court to intervene
Watchdog to Biden DOJ: Don’t Defend ‘Unconstitutional’ Debt Ceiling Against Lawsuit
‘Big Win for the Rights of Many’ as Biden’s Pro-Corporate Judicial Nominee Withdraws Name
7 news outlets reimagining political journalism in smart ways