Retired Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., was striving to avoid partisanship when he spoke on Friday at the first “Oversight Summit” organized by the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.
After presenting a state lawmaker (South Carolina Republican Rep. Weston Newton) with Levin’s new namesake award for effective oversight, the 36-year veteran of running investigations in the U.S. Senate acknowledged that he would pause and be “partisan but factual” about Washington’s recent approaches to the art of congressional oversight.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s current investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections “looks real” viewed from his distance at Wayne State University in Detroit, he said. “It is bipartisan and in-depth, but where it ends up I don’t know,” he said.
But on the House side, “things look terrible,” he said. “It’s been political, partisan and, from my perspective, some of their hearings were quickly called and then repeated,” he said citing the multiple hearings in 2015 and 2016 on the deaths of four American agents in Benghazi, Libya, for which Republicans blamed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Such an approach to oversight “is part of the reason the public is turned off to democracy,” Levin added. “Can’t we look at common threats? For God’s sake, it’s the basic stuff of democracy.”
When Democrats take over the House in January, “I hope they make every effort to run bipartisan investigations and resist the temptation to respond in kind,” Levin said, offering a “guarantee” that there are areas to “investigate on which Republicans and Democrats can come together.”
Levin’s 15 years chairing the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations are examined in the book “Financial Exposure” just released by his colleague Elise Bean. It samples his bipartisan investigations that produced “very significant” reform legislation, he said, citing the 2010 Dodd Frank Financial Reform Act, the money laundering provisions of Sarbanes-Oxley, and consumer protection bills involving the collapsed energy company Enron and the sweepstakes and credit card industries.
“We took on some of the most powerful institutions in the country,” Levin said. “Elected officials at all levels should be conducting more oversight” because good government requires it. “Oversight is the greatest check and balance, except the courts,” he said.
“I learned early on, as a local government official (on the Detroit city council), how important it is that programs—especially federal programs—work well,” Levin added. “it’s important for people who really favor programs to spend time on oversight to make sure they’re functional—not just when they’re being put in place,” he said. Skeptical people are needed because “those in power naturally want to hold on to it.”
But oversight is not supposed to be “gotcha,” Levin said. “If oversight is going to effect change, it has to be bipartisan.”
Some lawmakers “see a headline, and they may get a good show trial,” but his experience taught him “to take the time to do it right. That might mean millions of documents. Like a lawyer preparing for a trial, get into the weeds,” he advised.
To pull off bipartisanship, committee leaders need “a high commitment to legislative comity,” as was exhibited on his permanent investigations subcommittee, even when members disagreed, he said. Levin enjoyed good relationships with Republican Sens. Bill Cohen and Susan Collins of Maine, the late John McCain from Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, he said.
Staff should be encouraged to “work together, share all information, have no surprises, and go out and have a drink together,” Levin said. “If you start with a seed, it will flower. “
Not all Democrats looking back on the oversight game are as set on bipartisanship as Levin. Retired Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., in 2009 published, with Joshua Green, “The Waxman Report: How Congress Really Works.” During his 30 years in Congress, Waxman said, “the Oversight Committee has shown how government can be a tremendous force for good—and how, when it the wrong hands, it can be an altogether different and harmful force.” He added, “When the Republicans took over the House in 1995, the focus shifted away from strengthening government performance” to bringing down President Clinton.
Former Oversight Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., in 2014 co-authored “The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis. He “described how he took guff from fellow Republicans in the 1990s when he reached across the aisle to Democrats to fix the District of Columbia’s financial problems. “Making a difference and solving problems was what I had been sent to Washington to do,” he wrote, “and even decades later, our work has withstood the test of time.”
Levin, from retirement, warned on Friday that “Democracy is under a real challenge here and around the world. So oversight is now doubly and triply important.”