Jeff Hauser and Eleanor Eagan
Washington Monthly, April 24, 2019
The Mueller report is a chronicle of corruption. It outlines attempted collusion between Trump’s closest advisors, including his son and campaign chairman, and the Russian government. It shows that Trump routinely lied about his actions and asked those around him to lie on his behalf. It details a president who told his subordinates to end the entire investigation. The report is especially astonishing given that it didn’t even touch on Trump’s many other potential crimes.
Ultimately, Robert Mueller and his team decided not to indict the president. But they made it very clear that wasn’t because they believed he was innocent. Rather, it was because they believed oversight was ultimately the responsibility of Congress. ”With respect to whether the President can be found to have obstructed justice by exercising his powers … we conclude that Congress has authority to prohibit a President’s corrupt use of his authority,” they wrote.
On the campaign trail last year, Democrats appeared to agree this was an important congressional responsibility, and if they won the House, they promised to make investigating Trump a top priority. At a CNN event in October, Nancy Pelosi declared that, if her party won, they would “exercise oversight, which is the responsibility of the Congress.” She told reporters that obtaining Trump’s tax returns would be “one of the first things we’d do.” The then ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee said that his colleagues wanted to “hit the ground running from Day One” when it came to investigations. At least one Democratic official said that the party developed mechanisms while in the minority to coordinate oversight by different committees.
This message resonated with voters. In June 2018, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that by a margin of 25 points, voters indicated they were “more likely to support a congressional candidate who promises to provide a check on President Trump.” An ABC News/Washington Post poll from August showed that 60 percent of voters would “rather see the next Congress controlled by ‘Democrats, to act as a check on Trump’ to one controlled by Republicans, ‘to support Trump’s agenda.’” In a poll conducted right after the elections, 52 percent of respondents said that acting as a check on President Trump should be a major priority for Democrats, while an additional 20 percent stated that it should be a minor one.
But once elected, House Democrats quickly acted as if they had forgotten their oversight promises. In December, forty-six freshmen House Democrats signed a letter stating that they “must prioritize action on topics” ranging from healthcare to criminal-justice reform over oversight. On January 2, incoming House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal announced that he would not be requesting Trump’s tax returns immediately, as Pelosi had said he would. According to a spokesperson, Neal didn’t want to needlessly burn bridges that would jeopardize his chances of passing bipartisan tax reform. Like the freshman Democrats, Neal apparently viewed the quixotic goal of major bipartisan legislation as more pressing than looking into Trump’s foreign partnerships, holdings, and income. Ultimately, it took Neal exactly three months to send the two-page request.
Unfortunately, Neal’s approach and pace have been representative of the broader caucus. By the end of this Congress’s first one hundred days, only four committees—Oversight, Judiciary, and Financial Services and Intelligence (the last two jointly)—have authorized so much as a single subpoena. That’s a far cry from the “subpoena cannon” Democrats promised. Similarly, most committees have at most held a handful of hearings in which lawmakers directly interrogated Trump officials. Some, like Agriculture and Transportation and Infrastructure have, remarkably, convened none.
Think about that—as Democrats bemoan their collapse in rural areas, their Agriculture Committee has held no adversarial hearings with Trump officials that would allow them to draw a contrast with Republicans by discussing the need for the executive branch to rein in agribusiness monopolies. The Transportation Department allowed Boeing to fly its fatally flawed 737 Max, and its secretary has not been forced to answer for her department’s inaction. That’s particularly unacceptable given the extensive connections between the Trump administration and Boeing. The current acting defense secretary, for instance, is a former Boeing executive.
Indeed, Democrats are still giving administration officials weeks to voluntarily comply with requests for documents. Their patience is seemingly endless, even though the administration’s members have failed to earn an ounce of leeway. Sometimes, they don’t force staffers to come at all. For example, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin refused to appear before the Committee on Ways and Means in January to answer questions about the shutdown’s disastrous effects on the IRS. Rather than pushing Mnuchin to comply, Neal accepted this snub and simply didn’t convene a hearing on the topic, despite evidence that tax-collectors will be grappling with the shutdown’s effects for years to come.
Congress has a rich tradition of robust oversight. In the 1970s, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to create a committee to investigate abuses by America’s intelligence agencies. Chaired by Idaho Senator Frank Church, the committee exposed a variety of horrifying operations by the CIA, NSA, and FBI, including attempts to assassinate foreign leaders and spy on Martin Luther King, Jr. In the late 1980s, a Democratic-controlled Senate held 41 days of widely televised hearings into the Iran-Contra affair, hearings that dramatically undermined the Reagan administration’s self exoneration.
Those events are famous, but there are many lower-profile investigations that have also had an enormous impact. In the early 1980s, for example, multiple congressional committees began investigating Ronald Reagan’s Environmental Protection Agency for mismanaging hazardous waste cleanups. The investigations involved charges that the EPA exercised political favoritism in overseeing cleanups, and that the agency was riddled with conflicts of interest. In a dramatic hearing, senators accused the agency’s administrator, Anne Gorsuch (the mother of Neil Gorsuch), of trying to dismantle the EPA through draconian budget cuts. The House eventually voted to hold Gorsuch in contempt, and she was forced to resign. To restore confidence in the agency, Reagan reappointed the EPA’s founding administrator.
Given this history, it was disappointing when—the day after the midterms—House Democratic leadership staff told Politico they would push committees to move slowly on basic matters such as obtaining Trump’s tax returns and financial records. It was even more disappointing when February came around and Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic Caucus Chairman, declared: “We’re not going to overreach. We’re not going to over-investigate.”
The logic behind this strategy is clear. The party wants to avoid accusations that they are mainly driven by hatred of Trump. But empirical evidence suggests that the public does not share these concerns. An April 2019 poll asked Americans if they are more worried that the Trump administration will get away with “corruption, unethical behavior, or mishandling important problems” or if they are more worried that Democrats will “go too far and abuse oversight powers.” They opted for the former, 51 percent to 42 percent. That nine-point gap is a steady increase over what it was in December and November 2018.
Perhaps that’s because Americans have yet to see Democrats really hold truth to power. Since taking control in January, at least three House Committees have had executive branch officials refuse to testify before them. In addition to Mnuchin, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar refused to testify on family separation policy. The Ways and Means committee asked IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig to testify about the shutdown, and he accepted, but then abruptly canceled. The committee has yet to reschedule his appearance.
Given their refusals, it’s clear that when it comes to investigating malfeasance, Trump officials only show face when Congress flexes its authority. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, for example, refused to appear before the House Homeland Security Committee until the committee chairman, Bennie Thompson, threatened to issue a subpoena. His committee has faced no refusals since.
And yet Democrats remain squeamish. Even when they issue subpoenas, they appear apologetic. When House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings issued subpoenas to investigate the Trump Administration’s security clearance process and efforts to get a citizenship question included in the 2020 census, he expressed regret. “I don’t want to issue subpoenas,” he said. “I know how serious it is.”
But the Trump Administration is committing serious transgressions, and Congress has a serious obligation to investigate them. Democrats should cease to be ashamed of the subpoena and embrace it for what it is—a key component of legislative power, the constitutional separation of powers, and the rule of law.
How much can House Democrats accomplish if they engage in substantive oversight? It’s difficult to say, given that they have yet to play hardball. But to get a better sense, let’s consider what one of the few aggressive committees has been able to pull off: the House Financial Services Committee.
Chaired by Maxine Waters, the Financial Services Committee has conducted a variety of investigations into the corporate world’s incompetence, corruption, and avarice. A Financial Services hearing almost certainly had a role in Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan’s recent decision to resign. It hardly seems a coincidence that Bank of America announced its decision to direct some of its record profits from the Trump tax cuts towards raising its starting wage to $20 per hour just days before its CEO appeared before the committee.
Grilling corporate executives is obviously not the same as going up against the White House (although Democrats ought to do more of the former, too). And given the president’s stubbornness, it’s far from certain that combative hearings against administration officials will produce similar results. But there are other indicators that a more confrontational attitude toward Trump will help Democrats politically. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi enjoyed her highest approval rating ever as she went head-to-head with Donald Trump over his government shutdown. Since returning to a more passive stance with respect to Trump (but more aggressive against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), those ratings have dropped.
So has Democratic performance as a whole. Between November 2016 and March 2017, Democrats over performed their 2016 general election results by nine percentage points. But in special elections since the midterms, Democrats have underperformed by one percentage point. A recent CNN poll also found that Republicans are eleven points more likely than Democrats to say they are “extremely enthusiastic” about voting next year. This suggests that the Democrats’ current oppositional strategy is failing to capture the popular imagination in the same way it did last November.
Although Nancy Pelosi has confidently guaranteed that her approach will allow Democrats to repeat their 2018 wins in 2020, these results call that confidence into question. Even the Democratic National Committee, an organization not known for its strong progressivism, appears to be charting a bolder course than Pelosi. The DNC is starting a “hyper-local” campaign that will highlight in detail how the Trump administration’s policies have harmed specific communities throughout the country. The House Democratic leadership, by contrast, has recently dedicated itself to ensuring that impeachment proceedings—the chamber’s ultimate oversight mechanism—stay off the table.
But contrary to what the Democratic leadership seems to believe, the party will need to prove its anti-corruption credentials. By helping voters understand the ways in which the system has been rigged, rigorous oversight can help Democrats win big in 2020. And given their 2018 campaign promises, failing to do so constitutes a dangerous betrayal of public trust.
Jeff Hauser is the Founder and Executive Director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Eleanor Eagan is a research assistant at the Revolving Door Project.