The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republican Plans for Oversight Are Plainly Underdone

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 09: House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH) (C) talks with fellow Weaponization of the Federal Government Subcommittee (L-R) Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL), Rep. Dan Bishop (R-NC), Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) and Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) during their first hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on February 09, 2023 in Washington, DC. This was the first hearing of the new subcommittee, created by a sharply divided Congress to scrutinize what Republican members have charged is an effort by the federal government to target and silence conservatives. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) (Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America)

Republicans held their first hearing last week of the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. The session told us a lot about how little to expect from the Republican-led 118th Congress.

GOP lawmakers formed the committee to amplify their claims that the federal government routinely attacks conservatives. Republicans are framing the probe as part of a long congressional tradition of creating ad hoc oversight committees to investigate abuses of power. They have likened their efforts to the Church Committee from the 1970s (chaired by Senator Frank Church), which exposed illegal and improper actions by federal intelligence agencies. 

In reality, the “weaponization” committee has nothing in common with the Church Committee or other widely recognized panels like the ones tasked with investigating Watergate or the Jan. 6 insurrection. It was clear that House Republicans intend to play to a very narrow target audience, repeating talking points aimed at conservative media that resonate with their strongest supporters.(1)

In almost four hours of testimony Thursday by witnesses and questioning from committee members, Republicans on the newly formed panel offered practically nothing designed to appeal to a broader spectrum of voters. Indeed, a good deal of what was discussed would be difficult to understand for those who don’t regularly watch Fox News’s Tucker Carlson or listen to radio host Mark Levin’s talk show.

Democrats have complained that the committee, which will run for the full two years of this Congress (and perhaps longer, if Republicans remain in the majority beyond 2024) was created primarily to embarrass President Joe Biden and his administration. Partisan point-scoring might sound ugly, but it can be a worthwhile motive if it pushes the out-party to find real examples of malfeasance in the executive branch.

Doing so, however, demands a long-term effort to learn exactly what might have gone wrong and why. Masters of congressional oversight, such as legendary House Democrat John Dingell from Michigan, didn’t just throw wild accusations around; they cared about their reputations for honesty and accuracy.

But for Republicans whose main goal is to produce content for conservative media — or to audition for future media jobs — what’s important is highlighting existing stories that play well within the conservative closed information loop, not trying to expose real problems.

Democrats, for now, are content to take potshots and do some on-the-fly fact-checking as Republicans trot out long-debunked “scandals.” There may not be much more that they can do, given the way traditional House hearings are organized, where the majority chooses the bulk of the witnesses and it’s hard to develop arguments in the the brief five minutes members get for questions. 

Republicans say they are talking to whistleblowers, so it’s possible they will have some real substance to bring to future hearings. If not, it’s hard to see the point.(2) Even important oversight hearings about government wrongdoing rarely capture large audiences. On Thursday, none of the cable news networks aired the “weaponization” hearings live. The witnesses had little to say. At perhaps a low point, former member of the House (and former Democrat) Tulsi Gabbard gave a statement complaining about things that Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney have said about her and claiming her presidential campaign in 2020 was sabotaged by “Big Tech.” 

Was there any substance? Yes. North Dakota Republican Kelly Armstrong raised valid questions about digital privacy and how the government should handle people’s personal information. But the rest of his time was devoted to typical Republican grievances.  

The brutal truth is that the quality of House Republicans has deteriorated over the years. The decline began in the 1970s, when majority Democrats centralized the House and eroded the importance of House committees, many of which ran on a fairly bipartisan basis. With less to do, Republicans were less likely to develop the skills needed to legislate or conduct oversight.

The pattern continued as Georgia Representative Newt Gingrich and his allies took over Republican recruitment and looked for those most interested in and capable of using extreme partisan language. And then the Tea Party era and the Trump presidency made the situation worse, as internal purges drove out capable people and left others less likely to run for Congress, especially the House, as Republicans. 

It appears that those who remain have little idea what real oversight might be. They would be wise to remember that while their predecessors were happy to score partisan victories, they knew that the real goal was to make the government work better during both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Once upon a time, an obscure senator rose to prominence by investigating waste in government contracting during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The lawmaker was Harry Truman, and the president whose administration he investigated ultimately rewarded him with the vice presidency.

The politicians who have taken up the oversight mantle today, in contrast, can barely interest their own supporters in their cause.  

It’s going to be a long two years.

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(1) Many of those prominently featured on Thursday were discredited long ago, such as the IRS’s supposed targeting of conservative groups while Barack Obama was president (it turns out the IRS was actually trying to be sure that all groups were following the law, and didn’t single out conservative ones). Or claims that the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was really a plot by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which has already been studied by an inspector general and a special prosecutor without turning up any actual evidence.

(2) One possibility is that the real point is just to harass the Biden administration as much as possible, keeping everyone from the White House to the rank-and-file bureaucracy so tied up responding to subpoenas and fending off firestorms in the media that they can’t get anything done. At least during Thursday’s hearing, there was not much sign of that, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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