Pelosi Should Not Lead Democrats into Retreat on Oversight

RDP Newsletter 8

While official (and unofficial) Washington await what is likely to be a moldy Swiss Cheese Mueller Report (it has sat around for a month and is full of holes)… Revolving Door Project’s patience with congressional Democratic leadership and their rather intentional passivity is wearing thin.

Housekeeping: RDP finally has an official twitter account! Follow us @revolvingdoorDC if you have not already.

Congressional Oversight:

We are oversight hawks. We believe that the text and history of the US Constitution make clear that Congressional oversight is not a choice but a responsibility -- an inherent component of the legislative power.

That’s why we have been pushing all year for House Democrats to initiate the aggressive oversight that Paul Ryan’s dethroned Republican majority refused to provide last Congress. This expectation seemed reasonable, since Pelosi is Speaker in large part due to voters’ desire for a check on Trump’s unique blend of corruption, malevolence, and incompetence in running the executive branch.

Instead, Democrats have retreated into passivity. We mean that on more than one level -- the House Democrats held a “retreat” last week replete with all sorts of sessions. They heard from John Legend and Chrissy Teigen on Trump’s terrible tax and inhumane immigration policies. They listened to Trump’s Federal Reserve Chair, Jerome Powell, a longtime private equity titan.

But, according to the Washington Post, "Not a single session at the House Democratic Caucus retreat this week will focus on oversight of President Trump, according to a person familiar with the schedule — an intentional move sidelining investigations to focus on policies that resonate with voters."

There’s considerable evidence that oversight resonates with voters -- and even if it did not, it would still be the responsibility of Democrats to perform it. Democrats need to lean into oversight and view it as an opportunity, rather than “retreating” from oversight based on the myth that “oversight overreach” is a realistic cause for fear.

Spotlight: Although Katie Porter is always a contender for this honor, we would like to highlight the efforts of the Energy & Commerce Committee (aka “E&C”). Although countless committees have thrown a spotlight on rising drug prices, last week E&C’s subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations became the first to confront pharmaceutical executives directly about the rising cost of lifesaving medicine, in this case insulin. That was not, however, the only noteworthy activity; the committee’s subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce held a hearing with members of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), responding promptly to the concerns about that agency’s integrity that were raised in a Washington Post story at the start of the month.

Hall of Shame: We are beginning to wonder if our decision to praise Rep. Peter DeFazio’s stated willingness to issue subpoenas in the Boeing investigation was premature. He has yet to follow through on that threat, nor has he held hearings (unlike the Senate Commerce subcommittee on Aviation). DeFazio has called for the Department of Transportation Inspector General to conduct an investigation but this should not be a substitute for House oversight.

Of course, one wonders whether the many committees failing to leap aggressively into oversight are following party leadership -- a potential explanation we acknowledge without suggesting that it obviates the culpability of powerful Committee Chairs.

Executive Branch Personnel:

Even for those for whom it is their professional obligation…keeping abreast of this administration’s antics can feel random and overwhelming. For those who do not spend their working hours breathlessly tracking the latest Trump outrages, ordering the chaos is nearly impossible.

The pace and scope of wrongdoing is unprecedented making it genuinely difficult to keep up with the details. However, it is also true that these seemingly random scandals are, in fact, interconnected and exhibit characteristics that fall within a handful of common themes. We need congressional oversight that draws out these common threads to help the public fit seemingly disparate incidents into an ordered, more easily understood narrative.  

This week we are highlighting a batch of cases that fit several of the themes animating the Revolving Door Project’s work:

  • In addition to diverting attention from the bumbling “Barr letter cover-up,” the president’s purges at the Department of Homeland Security have left that organization with a dwindling number of permanent leaders and far more acting officials. This week an acting Homeland Security Secretary and Undersecretary for Management joined the ranks of acting heads of FEMA and ICE. Of course, this is not only a problem at DHS, but remains an issue of unprecedented scale throughout the executive branch (the Wall Street Journal did a good job exploring chaos at the Defense Department). That so many officials are leading agencies for months on end without Senate confirmation should give us all pause -- especially as Trump has admitted he prefers unconfirmed Acting officials because they give him “more flexibility.” Given that the Constitution explicitly requires Senate “advice and consent” for senior officers, Trump’s admission at least borders on an admission of an impeachable abuse of power.

  • Then again, the days in which Senate confirmation reliably indicated that an executive branch nominee cleared some minimal bar are long gone. That was driven home this week by the confirmation of David Bernhardt to be Secretary of the Interior, even as news media continues to uncover significant evidence of impropriety in his two previous years as Deputy Secretary (not to mention questions about civil or criminal violations prior to entering government service). This underlines a message that Democrats drove home prior to the midterms, but have largely backed off from since assuming power in the House: Republicans are complicit in the Trump administration’s wrongdoing, making it all the more important that Democrats act as a check on its power. Standing up to Herman Cain is a high profile exception to a sadly well-established rule.

  • Unfortunately, a lot of damage has already been done, many of the effects of which we likely have still not felt. This week, we got a first taste of the consequences of allowing the President to staff his executive branch with appointees who are loyal to him above the rule of law. Barr is refusing to release the full, unredacted Mueller report to Congress, using his Congressional testimony to inflame Trump’s base, and potentially instructing a Department of Justice official not to comply with a congressional subpoena. Meanwhile, Secretary Mnuchin is refusing a lawful request for Trump’s tax returns. While these are certainly severe and often illegal abuses of power, they are sadly unsurprising. That is why it is all the more important that House Democrats stop giving Trump administration officials the benefit of the doubt and start unapologetically using all of the tools at their disposal to fight back.

Independent Agencies:

Since our last newsletter, Allison Lee has officially been nominated to fill the Democratic vacancy on the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), almost nine months after Schumer submitted her name. However, we are still awaiting the nomination of Graham Steele to fill the Democratic vacancy on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) board, despite Schumer having suggested him for the role in November. In general, progress towards filling this spot and others remains very slow.

As it works to cripple some agencies by withholding nominations, the White House is attacking other agencies’ independence. In a memorandum released Thursday, the White House stated that it would require several agencies like the Federal Reserve, the SEC, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the Federal Election Commission (FEC), and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), to submit rules and guidance for White House review. The White House would then determine whether to submit those rules for Congressional review, a process that could slow or stop the implementation of many rules. What is most concerning, however, is the administration’s decision to insert itself into the rulemaking process at agencies that were specifically designed to be independent.

This week the obscure Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) found itself in the spotlight for its its new Republican leadership’s decision to block a recall on a Britax jogging stroller whose malfunctions had led to injuries for almost a hundred children and adults. While this was a particularly eye-catching failure, it is important to remember that the CPSC is not unique. It is just one of a universe of too-frequently obscure agencies that have been captured by corporate America, with dire consequences for the financial and bodily safety of millions of Americans.

We must demand better of these agencies and of the lawmakers responsible for staffing and overseeing them. That starts with examining them before they fail. Stroller crashes and the like are the result of a mix of revolving door appointees, vacancies and a lack of oversight. Many of these problems would be foreseeable if lawmakers bothered to look.

2020 (and Potentially 2021):

On Monday, April 1, eight Democratic President hopefuls made their pitch to a gathering of activists and union members at the We the People Membership Summit. The event covered a lot of ground, but there were a couple of questions and answers that peaked our interest in particular.

  • When asked what he would do as President to challenge monopolies and fight back against growing corporate power, Cory Booker answered that he would ensure that his Department of Justice actually enforces antitrust laws. This is an encouraging step although we look forward to hearing more from Senator Booker about what how political appointees factor into this strategy.

  • Beto O’Rourke was asked “What process will you establish to ensure your administration is staffed by senior officials who have the experience and the willingness to hold powerful people and corporations accountable?” In his response, O’Rourke committed to only appointing people to his executive branch who serve the public interest, who “will put the public health and welfare first beyond anything else.” We are encouraged by this strong commitment, though in the future we would love to hear more from O’Rourke about how he will choose the people that fit this criteria.

By this point it is clear that Pete Buttigieg cannot be ignored. In addition to quickly becoming something of a media darling, Buttigieg raised $7 million in the first quarter of this year, a figure that rivals or surpasses those of many candidates viewed as top tier. Recently nearly completely unknown, the “two most recent Iowa polls and the most recent New Hampshire poll all show Buttigieg in third place.” As Buttigieg has no federal voting record and has failed to articulate a policy platform (and has in fact actively dodged efforts to get him to do so), it seems like much of his popularity stems from a sense that he is an intelligent and moral alternative to our Disaster-in-Chief. Moreover, Buttigieg seems to have embraced this characterization of his run.

However, as we argue in Buzzfeed, Jimmy Carter’s somewhat disastrous presidency made clear that there is a lot more to being a successful president than evident intelligence and staking out a moral vision. Reporters and his supporters alike should insist that Buttigieg demonstrate he understands the job he is campaigning for, because early indications are not encouraging.

We’ll also note that as advocates of fierce congressional oversight, Buttigieg’s suggestion that Democrats are too focused on investigating and discussing Trump’s corruption is… a very different viewpoint than ours (or, for example, Matt Yglesias).

Want more?

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

Mayor Pete is More Jimmy Carter than Barack Obama

What’s Next In The Trump Tax Return Fight?

House Democrats explain why it’s taken 3 months to authorize subpoenas into Trump

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Opinion: Point -- Warren’s American plan to rein in tech monopolists

Koch Brothers Launch Ads to Push Back on Warren’s Antitrust Campaign

Kirstjen Nielsen resigns as US secretary of Homeland Security

Republicans expect the worst in 2019 but see glimmers of home from doom and gloom

The Rick Smith Show (17:45 minutes in)

3 Months Late, Neal Begins Oversight With “Easiest” Task, Trump’s Returns

Voice of America -- Korean Language (between 9:25 - 10:20)

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Revolving Door Project is a project of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.