The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion An inane squabble with Dr. Fauci shows the problem with congressional oversight

(Greg Nash/The Hill/pool)

You might forgive Dr. Anthony Fauci for getting a little exasperated at preening Republican senators who have turned him into an all-purpose villain of the covid pandemic. But it’s not often you hear an administration official conclude a back-and-forth with a senator at a hearing, then mutter “What a moron” when he apparently thought his microphone was off.

That’s what President Biden’s top adviser on the pandemic did after a particularly colorful exchange with Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS), who demanded to know if Fauci “would be willing to submit to Congress and the public a financial disclosure that includes your past and current investments.”

Fauci was at first puzzled, explaining that his financial disclosures, which he files with the government every year, have been public for decades. “The big tech giants are doing an incredible job of keeping it from being public,” Marshall responded huffily, positing a sinister conspiracy at work to hide Fauci’s finances and whatever dark secrets they contain. “Where would we find it?”

“All you have to do is ask for it,” Fauci responded. “You’re so misinformed, it’s extraordinary.”

Paul Waldman: Why the right hates Dr. Fauci

Marshall stuck to his guns, saying that his office couldn’t find them. But they are indeed available: As Robert Maguire of the watchdog group CREW pointed out, Fauci’s 2020 financial disclosure is online if you’d like to peruse it.

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This came after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) charged that Fauci “conspired” with scientists to discredit his critics. Fauci later held up screenshots from Paul’s website, in which the senator asks for contributions to continue his effort to get Fauci fired.

Fauci also noted that Paul’s endless crusade against him “kindles the crazies out there," resulting in “threats upon my life” and "harassment of my family and my children.”

This, in short, is the trouble with congressional oversight of federal agencies and officials. As necessary and important as it is, it’s only as good as the people elected to Congress. Which includes the wise and the foolish, the serious and the buffoons.

Both parties have their share of each. But there’s little question that incentives in the Republican Party push more powerfully in the direction of demagoguery, the creation of viral moments of confrontation, and the whipping up of enemies to feed the fantasies of the party base.

This is in large part a media story. There are those who trace the decline of Congress to the moment C-SPAN went online in 1979; it showed Americans what went on in the government they elected, but it also meant that entrepreneurs of anger like Newt Gingrich could use it to create moments of dramatic demagoguery sure to be replayed on other news outlets.

C-SPAN is part national treasure and part soundbite repository, which means that it can be used for good or ill. Combine it with cable TV networks with far too much airtime than they can fill with genuine substance, and you create the incentive for every congressional hearing to be turned into a shoutfest, as members know a moment of conflict is more likely to get on the news.

And cable news is particularly important for Republicans, because Fox plays such a central role in their political universe. A Democratic senator can decide not to care about what happens on MSNBC and have a perfectly fruitful career, but her Republican colleague knows he can be made or broken by Fox. His constituents, furthermore, are particularly interested in whether their representatives are doing a good enough job Owning the Libs.

Which brings us back to Sen. Marshall. Why is he so interested in insinuating that “shenanigans” (his word) might be going on with Fauci’s financial disclosures? Perhaps because he knows the right-wing media universe is full of bogus conspiracy theories about Fauci having a financial interest in vaccines or otherwise reaping a fortune from the pandemic.

To be clear, some Republicans are less dependent on the outrage cycle and therefore more likely to use congressional hearings to ask reasonable questions and attempt to clarify important issues. At Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) managed to discuss the pandemic with Fauci in a respectful manner. But the whole episode is a reminder that we get the oversight we elect.

And if Republicans take back Congress in the fall, they’ll not only be on the committees, they’ll be determining the agenda. Which means things could get even dumber.