Some things never change. Some change radically when least expected. How our government is running fits the second category, more than first. The US House is probably a good place to look for radical shifts. To date, the sun still rises in the east, but let’s see how long that habit lasts. Fair congressional oversight is on the ropes.
Years ago, when I served as a staff director and counsel for the US House oversight subcommittee investigating the Departments of Justice, State, Defense and NASA, we had cerebral membership. Newt Gingrich was the Speaker, but Democrats were civil and largely fair. The oversight mission was serious, accountability important, and investigative tools and process respected.
Our big tool was power to subpoena. We used it sparingly. The subpoena compels attendance of a witness at a hearing, deposition, interview of other forum. In our view, and that of Republican leadership – with Chairman Bill Clinger (R-PA) at full committee and Bill Zeliff (R-NH) heading subcommittee – one never used a subpoena, unless absolutely needed. Fairness, proportionality, process – mattered.
In nearly five years of conducting congressional oversight hearings –Waco hearings in 1996 to dozens of hearings into strategic defense, drug policy, law enforcement, immigration and space exploration – we seldom used the subpoena. We worked to keep the politics out, process front-and-center.
Note that – even in a time when a sitting Democrat President (Bill Clinton) was facing impeachment, not fictional but real trial in the Senate – we seldom used the subpoena.
Why was this – beyond decorum and prudence, balanced with probity – why did we so seldom ring the big bell, threatening or issuing a subpoena? Because we felt that rule of law, respect for individuals, process and the American People began at home. Elephant guns were for big game, not for political theater.
As a result, we actually got enormous Democrat cooperation – even from the Clinton Administration. We conducted hearings on dozens of topics, many sensitive, some controversial – but were able to win bipartisan interest, reforms and support to assure accountability to dozens of agencies.
Perhaps 49 of 50 hearings required no subpoena. The biggest reason was our membership on the Oversight Committee and subcommittees. We had an abundance of lawyers, former law enforcement officers, level-headed and less political minds, people more curious than castigating. We wanted what was right for America, not for one party. We worked well together.
Which brings me today. Suddenly, members of the Oversight Committee in the US House are everywhere, all over the air waves, Twitter, making bold headlines before there is one hearings – talking about subpoenas, threatening and finger-wagging – not a single hearing yet in the books. The unseemly specter gives pause.
Now we learn that the newly-elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who identifies as a “socialist,” wants a “70 percent” marginal tax, thinks rich Americans are “illegal,” says “facts don’t matter,” warns global warming will kill all Americans in “twelve years,” has crude words for everyone near President Trump – has made her way to the Oversight Committee.
Meantime, equally crass, anti-Israeli, anti-Trump freshman member, Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), is on the top investigative committee. She makes no bones about it, facts be damned. Her goal is to “impeach the motherf—er,” as she refers to our President. Leadership of the committee has sworn an aggressive attack on the “White House,” in particular. It all gives pause.
The question – as one who ran investigative hearings in a prior decade– is this: With so many members swearing – literally – to impeach the president, without facts or fidelity to established fairness and process; so many declaring intent to subpoena liberally regardless of need; so many announcing conclusions before hearings are held, what does “oversight” really mean anymore?
As a matter of law, unbiased, even-handed, fact-based, legally-pursued “oversight” is a constitutional prerogative of Congress. Yet every indication is that what we are about to see something different. What qualifies as “oversight” is about to change radically. The way that this House Oversight Committee membership is stacking up, speaking up, putting Americans, history and rule of law down, suggests old “congressional oversight” is about to become “congressional overreach.” Average Americans who expect a modicum of fairness are about to be sorely disappointed.
That said, hope springs eternal. Maybe Elijah Cummings (D-MD), once our ranking member on a leading oversight subcommittee, will think hard about the downside of “overreach” versus fair “oversight.” Maybe he will ponder the Republic, his party, and the value of balanced, fair, non-partisan oversight. Maybe we will be surprised – as he reins in wild horses. And maybe, the sun will rise in the west tomorrow.