The question I would ask is: How dumb do you think we are?
First, here’s what everybody is worried about, or should be. The pandemic, for starters. Does the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which proudly describes itself as the “chief oversight committee of the U.S. Senate,” really have nothing better to do than chase after the son of the former vice president and — perhaps more to the point — presumptive Democratic presidential nominee?
I can think of any number of topics that should be a greater priority. The failure to ensure adequate supplies of personal protective equipment or testing capacity. The threat of foreign interference in the election. President Trump’s government-wide assault on inspectors general, who are supposed to help lawmakers in their oversight function.
But no, Sen. Johnson, you do Burisma.
Another thing everyone is worried about, or should be, is the use — or misuse — of a congressional committee as a campaign tool. Where was the GOP alarm over Burisma before Biden launched his campaign? Nonexistent. Where was it when his bid appeared to be flagging? Dormant. Congressional oversight is essential, and Johnson’s panel was once a model of bipartisanship and effectiveness. But that role is tarnished when harnessed to partisan ends.
The subpoena, to a Democratic lobbying firm, has the air of grandstanding; the firm says it was willing to turn over material without the headline-grabbing move. But more than that: What is it, exactly, that “the American people need to know” on this topic? Hunter Biden was clearly hired as a Burisma director, and paid a lot for not much work, because of his father. He shouldn’t have taken the job and has acknowledged as much.
But the fevered suggestions of Trump allies that this was some sort of shady quid pro quo, with the former vice president pressing the Ukrainian government to fire its prosecutor general for investigating Burisma, have come up empty. This is a fact pattern in desperate search of a scandal. Johnson tried to turn Democratic complaints about the party-line subpoena vote — “a little bit of a hissy fit,” he told Fox News — into evidence that he is on the right track. “Apparently we’re hitting a nerve here,” Johnson said.
Speaking of nerve, Johnson’s newfound devotion to the public’s right to know would be a little easier to take if it had flickered to life during the impeachment inquiry. But no. When the Senate debated whether to subpoena individuals such as former national security adviser John Bolton, Johnson’s curiosity was markedly more diminished.
“This impeachment trial has to end, the sooner the better,” he said then. “Witnesses are just going to prolong it without really giving us any more information than we really need.” Of Bolton, he offered, “I don’t know what he’s exactly going to say, but . . . I can’t imagine he’s going to provide any kind of bombshell revelation.” That was then; this is Biden.
The newfound Republican devotion to congressional investigation — and that government affairs subpoena is just part of the onslaught — would also be more credible if the Trump administration weren’t engaged in a concerted effort to dismantle oversight, ignoring House Democrats’ requests for information and arguing in court against congressional subpoenas to obtain Trump’s financial records.
“These subpoenas need to be in aid of valid legislation, not as a prosecutor’s subpoena to probe wrongdoing,” Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey B. Wall told the Supreme Court last week in arguing that House subpoenas for Trump’s financial records should be quashed. Somehow that finicky insistence on a valid legislative purpose got lost in the Senate’s mania to get to the bottom of the supposed Burisma scandal — or, more accurately, its mania to do what it can to muddy the waters around Biden and help Trump win reelection.
At this point, some may be wondering whether criticism of Republicans’ investigative overreach means that Democrats have overstepped as well. Fair question, easy answer: All oversight is not created equal. The House has been examining serious issues about the financial affairs and conduct in office of a sitting president, not chasing phantom scandals from a past administration.
To put it another way: Geese and ganders deserve the same sauce. That does not justify Senate Republicans’ wild goose chase.