Hakeem Jeffries (DN.Y.), the incoming House Minority Leader, is telling his fellow Democrats to think about the next two years this way: The White House is the client, House Democrats are the defender. Actually, the Biden administration assembled a panel of legal, legislative and communications specialists to map out the likely vectors of GOP oversight and will hire more in the effort. Ashley Etienne who guided The House Democratic impeachment war room has sent high-ranking protégés to communications posts at federal agencies. Republicans have indicated they are eager to question: Department of Homeland Security (on border security), Health and Human Services (on COVID), and Education (over woke indoctrination).
After all, Democrats are familiar with how Republicans intend to use their control of the House of Representatives. In fact, GOP lawmakers have been saying it out loud for months. Congressman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Republicans would use their oversight powers to “draw the race in 2024” — a race that “must ensure that [Trump] wins.” Meanwhile, incoming House Oversight Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.), vowed the intensity of the investigations under his committee would “prevent Joe Biden from running” for another term.
The mood harkens back to a not-so-distant era on Capitol Hill, when a wave of the Tea Party wrested control of the House midway through Barack Obama’s first term — a time when Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), then chairman of the House Oversight Committee the chamber, vowed to do after the 2010 midterms: “I want to hold seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks.” With little hope of legislative progress under a divided government, Republicans are looking to investigate everything from Covid to critical race theory.
Lawmakers and operatives of both parties who survived the GOP era of questioning, they warn, this new regime will bring much of the same — only worse. “This crop of House Republicans makes Darrell Issa look intellectual,” said Eric Schultz, who served as deputy White House press secretary during that era.
After House Republicans took back the House in a landslide during the 2010 midterms, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a mandate to his new majority: “We’re in the communications business now,” he recalled Curt Bardella, who served as the Spokesman for Isa. The House Oversight Committee on Issa was the nerve center of this directive, tasked with questioning and amplifying any whiffs of scandal from the Obama administration. While many in leadership were wary of their new Tea Party majority, Issa welcomed some of the brighter new lawmakers to his committee, such as Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah)..
Their work began in earnest with an investigation into Obama’s administration of Operation Fast and Furious, a George W. Bush-era program that allowed illegal arms sales to go after Mexican drug cartels. In September 2011, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce dug in the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a solar panel maker that received a $535 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy. The committee brought in then-Energy Minister Steven Chu Congress for more than five hours of testimony. Then, a year later, Islamic militants attacked the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya, leaving three Americans dead. The attack sparked ten separate GOP-led investigations into the Obama administration.
None of the investigations ever found significant wrongdoing, but that didn’t stop the watchdog from attracting the attention of the political media industrial complex. “There was a deliberate communication strategy: flood the area and take advantage of media competition with each other to break things up,” explains Bardella. The recent appearance of A politician and his thirst for microscopes has just upended the DC media landscape, playing right into the commission’s hands. Republicans could milk four or five news cycles out of a single information request with a formula that went something like this: “Step one, issue a voluntary document request; step two, threatening a subpoena; step three, issue a subpoena,” says Bardella. Never mind that reporting rarely asks hard questions about the validity of what is being investigated. “I don’t think the reporters and Washington realized how irresponsible the Republicans were willing to be,” Schultz says.
By some accounts, Boehner would come to regret his tenure as the colleagues he empowered made increasingly stringent demands on Obama administration officials. The House charged Attorney General Eric Holder with contempt of Congress during the investigation into Operation Fast and Furious, but GOP lawmakers asked for more, something Boehner dismissed as illegitimate. Indeed, former congressman Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), who led the Solyndra investigation, said Boehner’s lack of support took the wind out of his probe’s sails. “He said he thought we had too much disregard for Congresses in the future, and ours wasn’t as important as the others,” Stearns recalled. “This is something that led to Boehner’s loss of speakership.”
The Solyndra investigation was based on Republicans’ claim that political allies were repaid their investments in the bankrupt solar panel maker before taxpayers. But GOP lawmakers could never prove that — and indeed the program made money and helped accelerate the development of renewable energy companies, 2014 report from NPR found.
The brake pump of the Boehner era may be harder to find in this Congress. Having made his way to the gavel, the new Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy unable to be a check on much of anything — nor has he suggested an interest in restraint when it comes to investigating the Biden administration. The only thing that seems too far to McCarthy is more than a dozen impeachment resolutions filed against Biden and various administration officials. “I think the country doesn’t like impeachment being used for political purposes at all,” McCarthy said Punchbowl News in October.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Green (R-Ga.), whose commission duties will be restored after Democrats stripped them in the last Congress, says she wants to serve on the Oversight Committee, a request that incoming chairman Comer has signaled welcomes him.
Do the Democrats have a chance in this new era? Getting the right lawmakers to lead Democrats on key committees can help, veterans of GOP investigations say in 2010. Bardella recalls then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) choosing the rare violation of Democratic seniority when she appointed Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Med.) as a senior member of the House of Representatives in 2011. “Cummings was politically minded and knew how to communicate effectively — he was the perfect foil to Issa,” Bardella recalled. Last month, House Democrats tapped Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who was among the leaders of the House investigation into the Jan. 6 riot, to lead the oversight, a choice Bardella praised.
Another plus for Democrats, veterans say, is that the Republican Party continues to focus on the culture wars. Ashley Etienne, who ran communications for Cummings during that era, remembers Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University student who GOP lawmakers wouldn’t allow to testify at their hearing on contraception oversight. The GOP denial of Fluke’s testimony backfired. When Democrats later gave her a chance to testify in a separate hearing, they won nearly two weeks of positive news cycles — fueled in part by voters’ fears about the future of abortion rights. Bardella says Democrats should look to use the time when Republicans are trying to hold hearings on issues like transgender rights. “If they go after the LBGTQ community and the hospitals that treat them, Democrats can put a human face on what that looks like,” Bardella says. “If you have members of Congress criticizing a patient who is telling this story, it’s not going to look good.”
And perhaps most of all, the GOP inquiries seem more absurd than ever. “At least with ‘Benghazi’ and ‘Fast and Furious,’ these are the least questionable executive actions,” says a Democratic official who works on oversight investigations. “When you cross the Rubicon with ‘Dr. Fauci colluding with China to start the pandemic’ or ‘Hunter Biden’s overseas work is the reason the strategic oil reserve is depleting’ — those are just conspiracy theories.”
“We were more bipartisan back then — I don’t think we would be bipartisan today,” Stearns says. “You lose your authenticity if it looks like a political witch hunt.”
Still, Democrats take the GOP’s ambitions seriously. The White House and House Democrats have kept an open line of communication about preparations for oversight. Jeffries was chosen to lead the House Democrats in the party because of his discipline as a party delegate, a trait he highlighted when he served as a manager during Trump’s first impeachment. They’re also preparing their own kind of counterattack: The Senate remains in Democratic control, and its leadership has nascent plans to continue investigations into the Trump administration. “Hunter Biden’s laptop is nothing compared to what Jared and Ivanka did in the federal government,” Bardella says. “That needs to be addressed every day.”
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