Having Overcome Fear of Impeachment, Will Dems Now Take Oversight Seriously?

Newsletter 19: Does anyone think we were lucky enough to have a potential whistleblower in position for the only deeply corrupt phone call of this administration?

We are, thankfully, in a far different place than where we last left you. After months of waiting and hoping, Pelosi’s opposition to impeachment finally crumbled on Tuesday. While celebrating Democrats’ embrace of an impeachment inquiry, however, we cannot lose sight of the other ways in which they’re failing to credibly oppose the Trump administration. In other words, the fight is far from over. 

Congressional Oversight of the Executive Branch

While there is still debate about just what it all means, Pelosi and House Democrats are now reasonably clearly committed to an actual “impeachment inquiry,” rather than their previous posture of doing the minimum possible to quiet their most easily satisfied critics. Six committees — Judiciary, Intelligence, Oversight and Reform, Foreign Affairs, Financial Services, and Ways and Means — will investigate the President and report their findings back to the Judiciary Committee. As they rightfully celebrate this victory, grassroots groups are organizing to weigh in on important questions surrounding timing, resources, and strategy. We are following this fight with interest. 

We will also, however, be watching to see if this belated embrace of impeachment affects Democrats’ opposition strategy more generally. Since March, we have argued that #ImpeachmentPhobia was causing Democrats to pull all oversight punches, not just those related to Mueller or the context of impeachment. And as we wrote in Washington Monthly, we believe that lawmakers should make space in their impeachment inquiry for Trump’s attacks on Americans’ kitchen tables. Even if these articles of impeachment may not persuade Senate Republicans, their inclusion would show how Trump’s crimes against the American people include day-to-day concerns as well as abstract concepts like “national security” and “the rule of law.” We urge the House actively make this case, rather than sitting back and waiting for the case to make itself. 

Second, even as we argue for an expansive impeachment inquiry, we also recognize that multiple aspects of this administration’s corruption will be better examined outside of that context. Luckily, many committees and lawmakers will not be directly involved in the impeachment process. They should not take their exclusion as license to sit on their hands. Instead, they should begin investigating the corruption — Trump’s and his associates’ — occurring within their jurisdiction. 

House Democrats have shied away from this task. In June, we hypothesized that Pelosi’s #impeachmentphobia was feeding this timidity by discouraging any actions that could plausibly build pressure for impeachment. With that gone, will House Democrats find some courage?

If they do, we have suggestions for where they should start. In a blog post this week, we highlighted some of this administration’s conspicuous assaults on regular people. Of course, since this is the Trump administration, many more salient instances of corruption have since emerged. Those include:

  • Wilbur Ross still hasn’t divested his stake in the shipping fund Starboard Recovery Associates after promising to do so multiple times. Divesting his stake in the company was a part of his original ethics agreement. It emerged that he had failed to comply in summer 2018, at which point he promised to take care of it. Well, here we are over a year later, and it still hasn’t happened. It’s high time the Energy and Commerce Committee look into this and the rest of Ross’ finances. 

  • The US Department of Agriculture just finalized rules that lift limits on pork slaughter line speeds and outsource inspections for disease and other contamination to slaughterhouses, rather than federal inspectors. This poses a severe threat to slaughterhouse workers’ safety (already a taxing and dangerous line of work) and to consumers’ health. It is well past time that the House Agriculture Committee engage in serious oversight of the USDA for these and other harmful decisions. 

  • The Education Department is threatening to suspend an employee for leaking a copy of the Department’s budget to the Washington Post. Just as the Intelligence Committee (and other House Democrats) fought to have one whistleblower’s allegations come to light, so too must other committees  come to whistleblowers’ defense. What will other would-be Education Department whistleblowers learn from this example? And what information will stay hidden as a result? The Education and Labor Committee needs to respond.

Perhaps most importantly, however, investigations would bring new information to the surface. We, undoubtedly, are only aware of a fraction of this administration’s offenses. House Democrats should set to work remedying that. 

Hall of Shame: Lawmakers must not only commend whistleblowing but follow up on it with vigorous action. And as we discussed with HuffPost, Richard Neal and the Ways and Means Committee he leads must stop hiding the potentially explosive IRS whistleblower story from the public (even as salient details that would encourage retaliation may need to remain private). 

Spotlight: At least one Democrat is not afflicted by #LearnedHelplessness. On Twitter, Rep. Ted Lieu called attention to the imbalance in legal resources between the Executive and Legislative branches. He did so not as an excuse for inaction but to argue in favor of dramatically increasing the number of staff attorneys. We concur!

2020 (and Potentially 2021)

We’ll keep this section short and sweet this week, but in exchange you are getting a reading assignment: The American Prospect’s “The Day One Agenda.” This series of articles represents an expansive consideration of how future presidents could use their executive authority for good. It covers a wide variety of topics, from education and financial regulation to antitrust and drug policy, making it by far the most comprehensive popular treatment of executive power we are aware of. And we’re not just praising the magazine for publishing our addition to the collection — an attempt to raise awareness about the little agency that punches above its weight against public health and safety, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).

In addition to providing a welcome dose of hope that big change is possible, the series is an indispensable tool with which to analyze this seemingly endless primary season and the coming election. Each article includes a section explaining which candidates have committed to performing the actions proposed therein. Many names are absent from these articles, however. Voters and advocates should take note of these gaps and begin to press candidates on their commitment to this agenda. In the absence of responses, they should look to proxies like candidates’ donors and advisors. 

Speaking of donors and advisors, we encourage you to read this piece from Sludge and LittleSis on candidates’ private equity donors and that industry’s role in the climate crisis. No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, indeed! While you’re at it, read our piece from July about the other reasons you should be worried about private equity’s role in 2020. 

Independent Agencies

Trump has yet to nominate a single person to an independent agency seat since Congress returned from recess. It seems ever more likely, therefore, that the National Labor Relations Board will have no Democratic members come December (it currently only has one Democrat to three Republicans). Member Lauren McFerran’s term expires on December 17 and statute dictates that she must vacate her seat that day. 

The existing imbalance has eased Republican members’ efforts to dismantle any and all protections for workers. This week they took aim at graduate students with a proposed rule to strip graduate students at private universities of employee status, and thus the right to form unions. As ProPublica reported, another attempted rollback was stalled earlier this month following allegations of a conflict of interest. The NLRB hired a temporary staffing firm to review public comments on a rule that would reduce protections for employees of public staffing firms. The firm in question belonged to two trade groups that had submitted public comments. Chair of the Education and Labor Committee, Rep. Bobby Scott, and labor subcommittee chair, Frederica Wilson, have sent a letter to NLRB chair John Ring. 

Although the difference between one Democratic board member and none may seem inconsequential, it is very important. Minority party commissioners can increase the political costs of bad agency decisions by cultivating outside opposition and commenting publicly on them. They can normalize a political agenda so that it is more likely to move once they are back in the majority (think: FCC Republicans on net neutrality or, hopefully, FTC Democrats’ advocacy to revive the agency’s rulemaking). Or, as we discussed in writing about the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in The American Prospect, majority party commissioners might step down, increasing the minority party’s relative power.  A complete lack of Democratic commissioners, in other words, will be a serious deficit. 

Want more?

Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last couple of weeks:

Will Democrats Seek Impeachment after Whistleblower Allegations? - Jeff Hauser speaks with Joy Reid on Sunday September 22;  see also AM Joy Guest: Waiting To Impeach ‘At The Ballot Box’ Is Dangerous

The Kitchen-Table Case for Impeaching Trump; see alsoWashington Post Happy Hour Roundup September 19

The Little Agency That Could (Block All Good Regulations)

Why are House Democrats afraid to wield their subpoena power? 

Surprisingly Good News at the Consumer Product Safety Commission

Donald Trump Actually Has 2 Whistleblowers To Worry About

Revolving Door Project Probes Thiel's White House Connection

Key House Democrats Are Giving Betsy DeVos A Free Ride

With Impeachment (Slowly) Underway, Other Oversight is Still Needed