Why the GOP oversight agenda in the new Congress likely will backfire
Republicans and effective congressional oversight are historically immiscible, like water and oil. Too many Republicans don’t like government, so, for them, what’s the point? Fixing government to render it into “good government” is an ideological oxymoron. For them, oversight is the perfect tool to tear down, not rebuild or reform.
Wasn’t that the real point of the Benghazi hearings, to tear down then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? Or “Fast and Furious” with then-Attorney General Eric Holder? Independent counsel Ken Starr went fishing for criminal activity in President Clinton’s Whitewater investments; he snagged a small fish, instead, named Monica Lewinski. That didn’t stop him from trying to tear down Clinton. But it backfired with the public.
Of course, there are some good government Republicans, but they are increasingly vanishing or have been vanquished. No, historically, the GOP has been missing the oversight gene in its DNA. Somehow, that gene got mutated. So, instead of having a gene that can appreciate the finer points of discerning, probative oversight, theirs is a self-destructive, tear-down gene that produces unintended comic relief.
An examination of the historical record will prove my point. Luckily, I spent the last four decades at close range with congressional oversight behind the scenes, so you don’t have to do the research yourself.
Keep in mind, these historic head-scratching mistakes I will highlight are already being repeated in the new GOP-majority Congress precisely because it is a political DNA thing. Place this shoot-myself-in-my-own-foot syndrome into the context of the recent midterms, in which the voters sweepingly rejected the toddler mentality of the Trump Republican Party, and one can see why the probability of the GOP politically self-immolating before 2024 is substantial.
The day after House Republicans reached their magic number for a majority in the next Congress, out came two oversight titan-wannabes at a press conference, chairmen-in-waiting Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) of the Committee on Government Oversight and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) of the Judiciary Committee. In tow was their very own version of a Steele Dossier; let’s call it “The Comer/Jordan Dossier” — not on Donald Trump, but on Joe and Hunter Biden.
Yes, I said Hunter Biden. The First Son. How serious is Comer about Hunter being his target? At the presser, a reporter asked a substantive oversight question about something else, but Comer interrupted: “If we could keep it about Hunter Biden, this is kind of a big deal, we think.”
Ron Bonjean, a former top House Republican staffer, warned: “Having 30 hearings focused only on Hunter Biden’s laptop would probably backfire with voters.”
They’ll do it anyway.
The Comer/Jordan Dossier consists of alleged “evidence” of a host of legal violations by the Bidens, including — they claim — tax evasion, money laundering, wire fraud, human trafficking and “abuse of the highest order.” After making the accusations, Comer sent out a series of requests to federal agencies seeking evidence to try to prove his evidence-free allegations.
Meanwhile, a current and a former top official each came out with warnings for their new fellow GOPers to be cautious on oversight.
First was former chairman of the committee, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) who said, “Don’t get too far ahead of yourselves. And don’t rush to do this publicly. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in private before you even get out there.”
Hopefully, he was deadpanning.
He also said, “Do some depositions. Look at some documents. And piece together something.” Sounds like he’s schooling the new crop of interns, not the new powerful oversight chairmen. Nevertheless, it’s good advice, and they obviously need it.
But the most telling advice came from Speaker-in-waiting Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who said he doesn’t want to pursue impeachment “for political purposes,” but only if investigations merit going there. McCarthy reportedly told fellow Republicans that committees won’t start with impeachment as a premise and then reverse-engineer justification. Wait: Why would the possible future-Speaker say that about his own investigators about reverse engineering? Perhaps because he knows that historically has been their M.O.?
I remember cartoonist Dan Wasserman of the Boston Globe capturing that GOP modus operandi back in the late ‘90s when Republicans — House and Senate — were investigating Whitewater and other matters during the Clinton administration. His cartoon contained four scenes, each of former Senate Whitewater investigation chairman Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) musing: 1) “We have the suspect!” 2) “We have the evidence!” 3) “We have the investigation!” 4) “Now all we need is the crime!” Otherwise known as: a reverse-engineered investigation.
At the time the cartoon appeared, I was working behind the scenes as an oversight adviser for Senate Republican leaders Bob Dole (R-Kansas) and then Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and for House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to monitor the investigation, as well as the subsequent House Oversight Committee’s campaign finance investigation under chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.). My role was to help minimize damage and try to ensure credibility of the product. I was at a disadvantage because what the two investigations had in common was Dave Bossie — yes, of Donald Trump’s inner circle — who was near the center of gravity for both, and both were using the reverse-engineering strategy, which entailed lots of spaghetti on the walls.
I recall marveling that even a cartoonist out in Boston could see what I and others were fighting against from within – an obvious political hit-job that undermined the credibility of the work product. In the end, under Bossie’s influence, the Whitewater investigation produced Wasserman’s cartoon but little else. The Burton investigation took two years, 600 subpoenas and millions of dollars — and resulted in confusion, partisan bickering, and an apology from the chairman for a major embarrassment.
Not to mention outsized spaghetti stains on the walls.
What does this have to do with McCarthy’s advice for the new Congress? In addition to the dubious Hunter-centric investigations, here’s what self-described oversight player-to-be Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) had to say: “We will be investigating and holding people accountable. And after we expose the corruption and crimes committed, we can impeach (Homeland Security) Secretary (Alejandro) Mayorkas, we can impeach (Attorney General) Merrick Garland, and we can, and we will, impeach Joe Biden.”
Now, all we need are the crimes.
I wonder how that will sit with an already skeptical audience of dissatisfied voters.
Kris Kolesnik is a 34-year veteran of federal government oversight. He spent 19 years as senior counselor and director of investigations for Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). Kolesnik then became executive director of the National Whistleblower Center. Finally, he spent 10 years working with the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General as the associate inspector general for external affairs.