A Capitol Hill veteran writes regarding congressional oversight: “Congress needs the resources, staff expertise, adequate preparation, bipartisan agreement and, perhaps more essential than anything at the moment, member commitment.” There is no member commitment from Republicans. The energetic inquisitor of the Obama presidency, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), openly declares his disdain for oversight of a Republican president. He has seen the lease between the General Services Administration and the Trump International Hotel, which on its face prohibits a federal employee from deriving profit thereof. (“Under the lease, the hotel’s rent is to be renegotiated annually, based on financial performance. A GSA worker would calculate the new rent. The worker’s ultimate boss, the GSA administrator, is a presidential appointee.”) Chaffetz repeatedly rejects the notion that he should take affirmative steps to enforce the emoluments clause.
As an ethics complaint and widespread condemnation for White House boosterism and bullying on behalf of Ivanka Trump’s business plays out, Chaffetz sticks to the view that there is no legal basis for him to investigate anything. This unusual defense for sloth never came up when Barack Obama was in office. Chaffetz leaves it to Democrats to demand a hearing on the Yemen raid, apparently unwilling to suffer the same wrath Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did for raising questions about the competency of the raid. (“Sen. McCain should not be talking about the success or failure of a mission to the media. Only emboldens the enemy! He’s been losing so … long he doesn’t know how to win anymore, just look at the mess our country is in – bogged down in conflict all over the place.”) As Trump mimics his idol Vladimir Putin in labeling opponents as traitors of the state, one could understand why lesser men would want to keep quiet. If Chaffetz agrees with the White House that questioning a military operation constitutes aiding the enemy, he owes Hillary Clinton and the families of four dead Americans in Benghazi one heck of an apology.
No amount of expertise or funds will change this. If Chaffetz wants to block and tackle for an administration that shows no respect for formal or informal ethical rules, the remedy is with the voters — and not just those in Utah’s 3rd Congressional District.
The Founding Fathers’ conception of divided government and checks and balances rested on the notion that each branch would defend its own prerogatives. We have seen over the past few decades that this model does not hold. For some time now, we have seen in our political system that tribal loyalty — party loyalty — overrides institutional protections, oaths of office and simple decency. (If Watergate occurred today, does anyone think Chaffetz would bother to investigate, no matter what the evidence suggested?)
If voters want constitutional government, limited government, in which facts matter and the most powerful branch, the executive, is held accountable between elections, then the only remedy is divided government. If Republicans protest that they aren’t capable of providing all that, then they need new leaders and new committee chairmen. That won’t happen. The water-carrying will continue up until the 2018 elections.
If that grim prediction holds true, Democrats would need to make clear (and have a pretty good case) that no matter how much you might like your representative, his or her reelection will perpetuate constitutional chaos, corruption and erosion of the rule of law because a GOP majority in both houses will never stand up to Trump.
Unfortunately, Republicans such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, who say they don’t want to respond to every tweet, have lost perspective and spine. The important stuff is the misuse of office, the attacks on the integrity of our democratic system, the assault on an independent judiciary and the reckless destruction of alliances. One cannot be tough on Russia and allow Trump to level the playing field between the U.S. and Russia. One cannot be a constitutional conservative and ignore a plain violation of the emoluments clause.
But, but health care! Tax reform! First, without normal democratic government, those things are not happening. And second, those things aren’t happening anyway, given the utter discord on the GOP side and Democrats’ determination to let Republicans lie in the bed of their own making. Trading honest, constitutional government for an Obamacare replacement or tax reform will get us neither.