Jeff Hauser and Eleanor Eagan
The Hill, March 18, 2019
Once considered the “world’s gold standard for aircraft safety,” the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was conspicuously slower than the rest of the world to take appropriate action after a tragic airline crash in Ethiopia credibly called into question the safety of the Boeing 737 Max 8.
That there were problems with Boeing’s software was not unknown to the FAA. Pilots in the U.S. had reportedly expressed concerns that the software limited their control of the planes.
After the Lion Air crash last fall in Indonesia, Boeing undertook a fix but the implementation of the update was delayed thanks in part to Trump’s border wall shutdown. Shockingly, the FAA deemed these delays “acceptable” because there was “no imminent safety threat.”
America’s precipitous downfall — from world leader in safe aviation to dangerous laggard — demonstrates how deeply Trump-era corruption has infected our government and underscores the pressing need for broad congressional oversight.
Happily, there are now lawmakers empowered and willing to investigate. This week, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, announced the committee would investigate the FAA’s approval process for the 737 Max 8s. Critically, DeFazio emphasized his willingness to issue subpoenas.
DeFazio’s prompt response should serve as a model for other committees. Too often in this era of oversaturation, controversies slip out of the public consciousness before those in charge face proper scrutiny.
Sustained investigative scrutiny ensures that life-threatening corruption receives the warranted attention and undermines Trump’s strategy of creating new controversies to escape accountability for past scandals.
There are other oversight-related lessons to be learned from this latest incident. Since the administration’s corruption has seemingly compromised all areas of the federal government, all House committees should be undertaking oversight, not just high-profile ones like Judiciary.
It is perhaps even more important that committees with lower-profile jurisdictions undertake vigorous investigations because it is less likely that journalists and civil society organizations are dedicating significant resources to uncovering corruption occurring within the Transportation or Agriculture Departments than, say, at the Trump Hotel.
We need proactive oversight because, if anything is clear at this point, it is that what the public knows about this administration’s corruption likely only scratches the surface. If they were willing to risk planes falling from the sky, what kind of quieter threats to our food, medicine, savings and other areas have they allowed to go forward?
House Democrats must start systematically investigating agencies within their jurisdiction in order to avert future crises before they unfold. There were, for example, clear warning signs that not all was right at the FAA, signs that the Republican House chose to ignore over the past two years.
The FAA has not, after all, had a senate-confirmed leader for over a year, and there remains no nominee even now. In typical Trump administration fashion, the acting head is a former airline industry lobbyist.
John Breyault, vice president at the National Consumers League, told the Wall Street Journal that under the leadership of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao “there doesn’t seem to be any meaningful enforcement going on.”
Additionally, some FAA issues predate the Trump administration, such as its mid-2000s decision to outsource plane inspections to aviation manufacturers.
As former President Harry Truman declared, in addition to being the “eyes” of its constituents, Congress must also be the general public’s “voice” and “talk much about what it sees.” Hearings are a terrific platform to not only uncover information but educate the public about abuses of power.
Look no further than freshman Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) to understand the potential of oversight. Although Porter has not reached the icon status of her fellow new member Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), we expect that hers is a rising star, in no small part due to her oversight prowess.
Most importantly, Porter’s questioning reverses our society’s dangerous deference to the wealthy, well-connected and powerful. This default “benefit of the doubt” allows them to escape accountability even though their worst actions often have more serious consequences than do those of the dispossessed to whom our society is so wildly punitive.
Across committees, lawmakers should ensure political appointees have the knowledge and the will to serve the public interest. They should confront CEOs when the official positions they espouse in court or before regulatory authorities directly contradict the niceties they spout before congressional committees. And they should be unafraid to call out lies.
Democrats won a majority in the midterms by promising to bring populist accountability to corporate America and the Trump administration. Mounting oversight at a scale and fervor proportionate to the scope of elite corruption in 2019 America will be key to Democrats retaining and expanding that majority.
Jeff Hauser is the director of the Revolving Door Project, which aims to increase scrutiny on executive branch appointments, at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Eleanor Eagan is a research assistant at CEPR.