If Congress Conducts Oversight & No One Notices, Does it Count?

Newsletter 12: Pelosi continues to delay impeachment while her alternative agenda for the House of Representatives continues to garner little attention.

With “cattle calls” in Iowa and California (and big dollar fundraising events in every major metropolitan area imaginable), you can be forgiven for thinking that the current presidency and the next presidential election are all that is going on in politics. Congress, an ostensibly co-equal branch, is flying under the radar as the House dithers in addressing the crisis of Trump and the Senate merely exists to confirm Trump’s judicial nominations.

From our vantage, the politics and governing policy of Congress and the Executive Branch are in a perpetual feedback loop -- even if one branch’s input is mostly the absence of meaningful action.

Congressional Oversight

Hopefully Monday’s predictable flop of a Judiciary Committee hearing into the Mueller Report will convince hesitant Democrats of what they should have long ago realized: impeachment is the only viable answer. The hearing was not a flop because historical and legal context on the Mueller Report is unneeded -- quite the contrary! -- but because “public education” only occurs if a broad chunk of the “public” “follows” the event on TV or social media.

Democrats should stop complaining about the (admittedly bad) media environment they cannot control and start figuring out how to act within it. Rather than compete to explain best why they can’t act effectively, they must experiment creatively within the media terrain that exists to get the attention they seek.

The existential question for Pelosi’s second stint as speaker is whether she can adapt to the terrain of 2019.  The nonexistent legal fight to pursue Trump’s tax returns suggests Pelosi will not. As we just published, we believe Pelosi is allowing Neal to slow-walk Trump tax returns not out of fear of losing in court but...rather fear that Democrats will win in court in a timely manner. A court victory would likely be followed by Trump and Mnuchin refusing a court order to turn over the returns -- and the resulting constitutional crisis would be so great even Pelosi would be unable to ignore it:

Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler, a serious and thoughtful congressional leader, has been loyal to Pelosi’s passive approach even as he has allowed it to be increasingly known that he too recognizes the urgent need for an impeachment inquiry to be initiated formally. Eventually, Nadler is going to have to move forward even without Pelosi’s approval -- something he can do technically, even as it would represent a significant breach of normal intra-Caucus governance.

Pelosi’s political cowardice is, as this brilliant article suggests, comparable to prosecutors unwilling to prosecute killings by police officers for fear of white jurors refusing to convict. “Only a white man could get out of obstruction of justice charges by obstructing justice.”

Spotlight: Pramila Jayapal and Elizabeth Warren are looking into former Homeland Security Secretary (and Chief of Staff) John Kelly, potentially tying the administration’s most heinous acts (caging kids) to the pursuit of private profit (and Jayapal, a potential future Speaker of the House, continues to demonstrate an understanding of 2019 much greater than that of Pelosi).

Hall of Shame: We won’t belabor further our take on Pelosi -- so in the meantime, we will continue to advocate for aggressive oversight of Trump Administration figures like DeVos’ team at the Department of Education. As we wrote last month, the otherwise excellent Congressman Bobby Scott has a golden opportunity for oversight and it’s long past time for him to seize his moment.

Executive Branch

Pelosi’s poor political instincts for this unique moment are reflected in how House Democrats are missing the political opportunity to tie Trump corruption to consequences felt at kitchen tables across the country. Here are three examples -- and when reading them, keep in mind that a pattern of abuse of power motivated by greed would be worthy of impeachment even if the Mueller Report had come back with a clean bill of health for Trump.

  • Trump getting money from sketchy people advocating he go to war with Iran, potentially putting our soldiers (and countless civilians in the Middle East) at grave risk. Similarly, Kushner also receives mysterious foreign money while making bad, ill-informed decisions about our foreign policy.

  • Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao seemingly undermines America’s maritime industry while assisting her family’s business of deploying ships registered “in Liberia and Hong Kong” and owned “through companies in the Marshall Islands” to engage in international shipping to and from the United States. Chao’s ties to China’s repressive government are seemingly even stronger than Trump’s ties to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia -- and that’s saying something!
    This one also implicates Democrats’ ultimate foe in the Senate, since Chao is married to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell! Given that Democrats are running uphill to unseat McConnell’s colleagues… scrutiny of the man who blocked disclosure of Trump-Russia ties in 2016, as well as a vote on Merrick Garland, would seem, you know, worthwhile?  

  • Payday lenders spend $1 million at a Trump resort and get what they want from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), endangering the hard-working, low-income people the industry seeks to exploit.

Independent Agencies

The SEC approved Regulation Best Interest last week; i.e., the SEC has made it easier for the least responsible elements of the financial sector to grift investors. That indefensible measure passed on a party line 3-1 vote which would have been 3-2 had Republicans not, as we wrote with Demand Progress Education Fund’s David Segal, been stealthily obstructing Democratic Independent Agency Commissioners.

We applaud Commissioner Jackson on his “no” vote and his active leadership in opposing this unjustifiable gift to financial sector predators. Add this to the list of reasons we hope he will stay on until a Democratic successor is nominated and confirmed so as not to further tip the balance in Republicans’ favor.  

In less depressing news, it was great to see an increase in the FTC budget to support greater enforcement against tech companies. Much more like this please! 2020 candidates will need to fight hard to build back up wide swathes of the federal government’s corporate law enforcement machinery in order to protect everything from our environment to the safety of workers and the integrity of our financial sector.

One potent example: Serious overhauls are required to address the many problems with the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) enforcement raised in this article about a Fisher Price “sleeper” which may have contributed to dozens of babies’ deaths.

2020 (and Potentially 2021)

Housekeeping Alert: With the coming of the Democratic presidential debates, we will be begin breaking this section out into standalone newsletters in coming weeks. We have also begun digging deeper into the corporate influencers most active in currying favor with potential presidential candidates.

Reporters, please feel free to drop a line if you will be focusing on:

(a) corporate influence in the presidential primary,

(b) potential executive branch appointees, and/or

(c) what a progressive agenda for the executive branch would look like.

Meanwhile, we note Biden’s nascent fundraising strategy with alarm, especially as Bidens says things like, "Wall Street and significant bankers and people, they're all positive, they can be positive influences in the country,"

Does this mean ongoing governance by revolving door figures from Wall Street to DC under a President Biden?

Similarly, “Mayor Pete” fundraising with an Uber executive after standing with Uber drivers is not only discordant, but worrisome. The need for renewed antitrust enforcement and technology regulation has become increasingly clear to more people across the ideological spectrum--but maybe not to Facebook user #287.

Want more?

Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to this month:

Can Activists Trust Nancy Pelosi’s Instincts on Impeachment?

Can Democrats Stop McConnell and Trump’s Quiet Regulatory Takeover?

Commissioner’s Exit Would Leave the SEC Without a Democrat

Oversight Targets Abound in Betsy Devos' Education Department

May Update on the State of Independent Federal Agencies

Safeguarding Summer: A Report from the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards

Oversight Targets Abound in Betsy Devos' Education Department

Happy Hour Roundup 6/3/19

The Trailer: The state of the workers' primary 6/6/19