November 07, 2019
Rep. Ayanna Pressley introduced legislation last week to require the CEOs of the country’s largest banks to testify before Congress at least once per year. While this might seem a perfectly run-of-the-mill measure from an outside vantage point, it is a marked departure from this Congress’ aversion to most oversight (especially of corporations). Indeed, most members of Congress have shown no appetite for the type of populist, corporate oversight for which we at the Revolving Door Project have advocated. Pressley, along with a handful of other freshman Democrats (and Rep. Maxine Waters) are notable exceptions. It is long past time that their approach became more mainstream.
It has been one year since the blue wave came crashing over the country, sweeping a new Democratic majority into the House of Representatives. Commentators wasted no time predicting how the new majority would use its powers. Ask for Donald Trump’s tax returns? Naturally. A subpoena cannon aimed at the White House? You bet. Meanwhile, the co-heads of Akin Gump’s Congressional Investigations Practice foresaw vigorous investigations of corporate America and, in anticipation, took to the pages of the Hill to advertise their firm’s services.
All of that turned out to be wishful thinking; rather than embracing their oversight powers, activists and grassroots organizers have, with few exceptions, had to push House Democrats kicking and screaming into investigating just about anything. While the oversight landscape has been bleak generally, nowhere is more barren than the terrain of corporate oversight. Akin Gump has almost certainly not received the windfall they had been expecting from corporate clients seeking counsel as House Democrats investigated their misbehavior.
In choosing not to perform oversight of corporate America, lawmakers are passing up an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to good governance. Although it has been neglected in recent decades, oversight is an essential component of effective governing. Lawmakers cannot solve problems if they don’t actually understand the problems they are trying to solve. Thus, for example, it is essential that they understand how corporations avoid taxes if they want to redesign the IRS to put an end to the practice.
But that’s not all. In addition to being good policy, corporate oversight represents good politics. People see growing corporate power in every aspect of their day-to-day lives, whether that be in the quality of their employment, the safety of their personal information, or the often shocking disjuncture between public opinion and political outcomes. Their options for fighting back against these unelected and unaccountable corporate overlords, however, are few. Lawmakers can, however, do so on their behalf by subjecting these companies to democratic accountability through hearings and broader investigations. In filling this accountability gap, lawmakers can adopt a politics that speaks directly to the 76 percent of people who were at least somewhat concerned that “big corporations have too much power over [their] family and [their] community,” according to one poll.
All hope that Democrats will seize this opportunity is not lost. In a deep field of oversight laggards, a handful of freshman Democrats have refused to succumb to investigative apathy. New lawmakers like Representatives Katie Porter, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley have clearly recognized the power of oversight, and especially corporate oversight, to give voice to Americans’ grievances and to act as a check on unbridled corporate power. No doubt they have also felt firsthand how such activities help to build and galvanize their base of support.
Of course, these freshman lawmakers have only had the opportunity to go to head-to-head with corporate titans because they serve under a House Financial Services Committee chair, Rep. Maxine Waters, who has put corporate America under the microscope. But most committee chairs have not been similarly inclined. Pressley’s new bill would ensure that, at least on the Financial Services committee, opportunities for confrontation are institutionalized, no matter the inclinations of committee leadership.
But we can’t conceivably codify all of the corporate oversight that Congress should be performing. Lawmakers, especially committee chairs, must come to recognize the necessity of corporate oversight, whether or not there are laws in place mandating annual testimony, so that they can respond to the changing demands of the time. If they’re wondering where to start right now, however, we suggest taking a page out of Pressley’s book and calling in the CEOs from the largest corporations under their jurisdiction (and then, ideally, calling them again the next year, and the year after, ad infinitem).