The Plum Line | Opinion
September 11, 2018 at 4:14 PM
A veteran Republican congressional staffer has published a scathing attack on his own party’s oversight failures in the Trump era. The piece hints at a crucial point that it’s time to start thinking about seriously right now.
In short: If Democrats do take back some or all of Congress, they’re going to have a lot of cleaning up to do. And while it’s tempting to think that all this means is exercising the oversight on President Trump that Republicans have not, it’s not that simple.
The piece — which is by Kris Kolesnik, who toiled on GOP oversight staff for nearly 20 years — flatly accuses the current GOP of the “downright destruction” of Congress’ oversight functions. It flays Republicans over the weaknesses of the Senate’s examination of Russian electoral sabotage, and the conversion of the House’s probe into a full blown harassment campaign aimed at law enforcement’s legitimate and independent Russia investigation.
But the real key is Kolesnik’s suggestion that if Democrats can take either the House or the Senate or both, “they are obligated to resuscitate that function Republicans have allowed to atrophy in service to their president.”
This would entail a serious accounting of the institutional damage Republican abdication of oversight has done. As Kolesnik notes, if Democrats take power, they need to assess that damage and lay out an agenda for “institutional preservation” and restoring “oversight norms, credibility and integrity.”
Obviously, Democrats would want to restore oversight where Republicans have abdicated most conspicuously. This includes an effort to gain transparency into Trump’s tax returns and business holdings, to get a better handle on his self-dealing, and a real investigation into the unknowns left behind by the GOP’s less-than-dogged Russia probes. David Leonhardt has suggested looking into the possibility of Trump money laundering in Russia and the question of whether that has left him vulnerable to manipulation.
But there would be a lot more beyond this to be done when it comes to restoring Congress’ institutional oversight integrity.
Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein suggested to me today that it’s crucial that in restoring oversight, it “can’t just be the gotcha kind.”
This means looking not just at media-friendly topics such as Russia and Trump’s tax returns, but also at failures of governance. As Ornstein put it, if Democrats take power, they must “look at mismanagement and malfeasance in programs and agencies,” that is, at “what went wrong and why.”
There are some obvious candidates for this. Real oversight might examine the governmental response to Hurricane Maria and the shockingly high death toll that may have resulted in part from it.
There is a lot to examine on immigration, too. Many of Trump’s immigration policies, from the thinly-veiled Muslim ban to the slashing of refugee flows, were implemented amid a bad faith refusal to take into account internal administration analyses that undercut their rationales. The administration proceeded with family separations after being warned by officials that they could result in psychological trauma to immigrant children. The governing processes behind these things could use a lot more sunlight.
Speaking of the family separations, Ornstein also suggests another area ripe for more congressional examination: The huge private industry in sheltering migrant children, which is fueled by government contracts. Democrats should “examine those contracts and how they came about,” Ornstein says.
But Ornstein also called for a much broader look into privatizing in other areas, such as private prisons, arguing that Democrats must make a major priority out of “oversight of the relationship between government agencies and the private contractors.”
On another front, the sheer volume and nature of the administration’s efforts to undermine Obamacare also suggest a level of bad faith in implementation of the law that is crying out for some serious scrutiny.
In short, if Democrats can win some control, there will be a lot to do — well beyond Russia and Trump’s finances.
Democratic leaders must “lay out an agenda of oversight, all these things, for the public and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do,'” Ornstein says, adding that the message from Democrats to the American people should be: “We may not be able to get laws passed, but what we can do is make sure the programs you’re paying for are being faithfully executed.”