House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ranking member Elijah Cummings (left) and Chairman Jason Chaffetz (right).

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ranking member Elijah Cummings (left) and Chairman Jason Chaffetz (right). J. Scott Applewhite/AP

How to Master the Congressional Investigation

Staffers learn how to investigate from those who have experience doing just that on Capitol Hill.

Last week, a bipartisan group of Hill staffers sat in the Capitol's Dirksen building, poring over a few articles about how hackers claimed they breached the network at the Department of Homeland Security. If true, such a hack would be devastating. And in the "articles," DHS officials summarily denied the allegations.

The Hill staffers were ready to investigate. Or rather, they were eager to learn how to investigate.

There's a twist in this storyline: The staff was well aware the news reports were fake, and that's because they'd signed up to spend two full days of August recess learning how to conduct an investigation from professionals who have experience doing just that on Capitol Hill.

The exercise was useful because investigations may have an impact not only on the investigators and the investigated: They can put presidential campaigns and administrations on the defensive; they can change the culture of a sports league, or help spur policy changes.

The Project on Government Oversight, Levin Center at Wayne Law, and the Lugar Center held their boot camp last Tuesday and Wednesday for the benefit of current committee and personal staff, legislative aides, interns, and more.

"The challenge of doing oversight from the Hill is that there's no institutional memory, and if the members who cared about it leave, and the staff that know how to do it leave, there are decades of experience that get lost," said Justin Rood, director of POGO's Congressional Oversight Initiative and the inaugural investigative boot camp's co-leader.

Current staff were hungry to learn—or hone—these skills. The Project on Government Oversight sent a sign-up email to its listserv, and within an hour, the spots were all grabbed up, said Rood, who also formerly worked as a senior investigator on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and then served as the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee investigations director for then-Sen. Tom Coburn.

At 9 a.m. Tuesday, the roughly 20 participants listened to former Sen. Carl Levin—who used to helm the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations—open the boot camp that brought both Republicans and Democrats together for a nearly 18-hour investigative crash course.

The days' leaders divvied up the attendees into four (bipartisan) groups, giving each one of two scandals to use throughout the boot camp. One such narrative was based in reality, as two teams dug deeper into the FIFA scandal.

The other, though, was entirely fictitious. A fake conservative news blog "wrote a story" based on an exclusive copy of an internal DHS report detailing how criminals were using unprotected spots along the border for smuggling. More articles stated that a hacker collective claimed it had obtained the classified report. Over the course of the investigation, staffers uncovered the "truth": The cybersecurity contractor was hacked, and from there, hackers were able to access the DHS Inspector General's network.

The two days were interspersed with seminars, role-playing exercises, and activities in which the participants worked on the four main parts of an investigation: the investigative plan, the report, the hearing, and the follow-up plans.

General discussion and questions often focused on bipartisanship. The boot camp's trainers all have experience on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which has a storied history of Republicans and Democrats working jointly on oversight, according to Rood.

"A lot of the participant-generated conversation focused less on the particulars of how to craft a subpoena and more on building relationships," Rood said, "and how—especially if you come from a committee that is currently divided and pretty partisan—how you can start to build those relationships."

And that led to one of the day's big themes: Bipartisan oversight is better, said boot camp co-leader Elise Bean, who is also the co-director at the Levin Center at Wayne Law and the former staff director for Levin on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. That's because, Bean said, bipartisan investigations have a greater impact and are more credible, produce a better investigative product, and generally lead to a better policy outcome.

Building personal relationships is a part of cultivating bipartisanship. Reaching out to the staff on the other side, taking them out for a beer, "are small token gestures but can start to build a little bit of trust," Rood said. Taking it even a step further, ground rules could be set for an investigation, such as ensuring both a Republican and a Democratic staffer sit in on interviews with the subject of an investigation, allowing the other side to ask questions, even sharing your line of questioning with the other party.

"I think that oversight can get a bad rap because the stuff that makes the headlines is frequently the most acrimonious and hotly contested reports of finding," Rood said. "But when you sit down in a room with oversight staff and investigators, they believe strongly in the work. And they're good, credible people, and they need to be given the chance to do the work that I think their bosses ultimately want them to do, and why they came to Washington."