Here's What Incoming Democratic Leaders Have in Mind for Federal Agencies
Priorities will include boosting spending and investigating political targeting of career employees.
As Democrats prepare to take control of the House in the 116th Congress, their leaders are promising a dramatic increase in oversight over an array of issues they say the Republican majority neglected to properly investigate.
As ranking members become chairmen in committees across the lower chamber, Democrats will be setting agendas, scheduling hearings, requesting documents and, if necessary, issuing subpoenas. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the likely incoming House Speaker, said in a press conference after the midterms that her party would not “go looking for a fight,” but made clear it would also not “relinquish our oversight responsibilities.”
“We have a constitutional requirement to provide oversight,” Pelosi said. She added, “You can be sure of one thing: when we go down any of these paths, we’ll know what we’re doing and we’ll do it right.”
Here is a look at some of the paths Democrats are likely to go down, as explained by those likely to be leading the charge at key House committees:
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., will likely become the top lawmaker with control over federal agencies’ purse strings. In a statement after the election, Lowey said her top priority will be raising the “unworkable budget caps” set to kick back in after the current budget deal expires starting in fiscal 2020. She also plans to use the “power of the purse to conduct rigorous and effective oversight of President Trump and his appointees.”
An aide on the committee said Democrats were able to secure “huge increases on non-defense spending” in the last budget despite being in the minority and President Trump repeatedly pushing for discretionary spending cuts.
“To now have one of the chambers I think gives us even more leverage,” the aide said, adding Democrats would also have better success pushing for their priorities in spending bills. Democratic appropriators believe many agencies are still funded below 2010 levels when adjusted for inflation and plan to address that in fiscal 2020.
Appropriators were previously “bogged down” by negotiations over legislative riders in spending bills, the aide said, promising Democrats would use them less often.
“It’s not our intention to put lots of policy riders on these bills that make it harder to pass them, because we’ve seen how destructive that is,” the aide said.
Democrats will lead investigations into the Trump administration's spending on issues such as hurricane relief, family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border, deployment of troops to the border and cabinet members travel using agency resources. They will continue to push for more oversight when taxpayer dollars are used for agency reorganizations, and in some cases they will require congressional approval. Appropriations will also have final say in future federal employee pay raises, and a committee aide said the panel will “make sure the federal workforce is getting paid in a way that is commensurate with their work” and that keeps pace with the private sector.
Oversight and Government Reform
In a previous profile of how Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will exercise control, Government Executive reported the panel will dramatically increase its investigations into the Trump administration. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who is expected to chair the committee, said he will push for “accountability, transparency, integrity and honesty” from federal agencies across government.
Cummings promised to shine a light specifically on the administration’s “politically motivated attacks” on career employees, as well as agency watchdogs and ethics officials. He also said he will focus on issues such as security clearance reform, Trump’s possible conflict of interests, administration officials’ ethics scandals and the “zero-tolerance” policy that led to family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., is set to become the Veterans Affairs Committee chairman after the current ranking member, Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., leaves the House to become governor of his home state. He laid out his vision for what a Democratic-controlled committee would look like when addressing the American Legion earlier this year. Takano vowed to work across the aisle, with the Trump administration and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and veterans service organizations. He said with “proper staffing” and a “new focus” on improving management, VA could deliver the care veterans deserve.
“Next Congress, I am going to work with you to fill the more than 30,000 employee vacancies across the VA that prevent veterans from accessing the benefits they have earned,” Takano said. He added, “While there will always be some form of care in the community to support the mission of the VA to serve veterans, I have great concerns about potential efforts to profiteer off of veterans. This would undermine veterans’ health care and as long as I’m in Congress, I will never let VA health care be privatized.”
In a Military.com op-ed published Monday, Takano said Democrats would release a 10-year plan that will “reimagine how the VA can deliver high-quality care, improve management, ensure proper staffing and fill essential employee vacancies.” He also promised “proper oversight of the VA and the Trump administration.”
Early in the Trump administration, State Department officials came under fire for allegations of political targeting of career employees. Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the ranking member and likely next chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sought to investigate those reports but was largely stymied by the administration and the Republican majority. A Democratic aide said that topic will now be a “major priority” for Democrats after they take control of the panel. The committee has heard about “funny business” at an array of bureaus amounting to an attempted “purge of career officials on totally inappropriate grounds,” including the reassignment of employees working on issues prioritized by the Obama administration to the relative backwater of the Freedom of Information Act office.
“These are areas where we are going to revisit,” the aide said.
Engel will not start issuing subpoenas “left and right,” preferring instead to work cooperatively with the administration. The aide added, however, the chairman plans to “use the tools at his disposal to get the answers we want.” Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pledged to answer Democrats' questions last year, but never did. The department cited an ongoing inspector general investigation into the matter before resorting to “radio silence,” the aide said. The committee plans to “hold hearings” and “get administration officials in front of us.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he would not tolerate any political retaliation at the department and anyone engaging in that activity would be fired. Democrats “intend to hold him to that,” the aide said.
Energy and Commerce
In her remarks after the election, Pelosi specifically cited the Environmental Protection Agency as an area on which the Democrats would focus their investigative attention. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., is likely to become chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He pledged as chairman to make addressing climate change a priority, including by “holding the administration accountable for its policies to make it worse.” He also promised to work on restoring “environmental protections gutted over the last two years.”
The committee will “conduct vigorous oversight of the Trump administration, so Washington works again for the people not the special interests,” Pallone said.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, who is likely to chair the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in the 116th Congress, also vowed to address climate change. She said the committee would listen to scientists at federal agencies and work toward mitigation.
The Interior Department faced bipartisan pushback for its reassignments of senior career executives last year, including from Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., the likely next chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. While Trump administration officials have defended the practice as a valuable way to give the managers more diverse experience, whistleblowers and Democrats have accused the department of orchestrating politically motivated transfers. Grijalva, in addition to Cummings at the oversight committee, may push for more answers on those changes. He is also likely to further probe Secretary Ryan Zinke on an array of potential scandals, including his official travel and conflicts of interest.