Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., is the new chairman of the House's main oversight committee.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., is the new chairman of the House's main oversight committee. Alex Brandon / AP

Featured eBooks
Disaster Recovery and Resilience
Cloud Smarter
The Cybersecurity Challenge
Scholars Urge Lawmakers Investigating Trumpworld to Focus on Substance

Successful congressional investigations are well-planned, careful and committed to finding the truth, paper argues.

In advice to newly empowered House Democrats, a scholar of government performance welcomed fresh opportunities for oversight to end Congress’s “investigative drought” of recent years. But Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, argued that poorly planned investigations “weaken faithful execution of the laws and increase public distrust.”

Light’s new paper, “How the House Should Investigate the Trump Administration,” released on Friday by the Brookings Institution (in cooperation with the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight and the Governance Institute), addressed the singularity of the Trump administration with its unusual number of investigative “targets.”

The administration’s approach to government performance “has no real strategy—the managers apparently just want to turn things off and stop things from happening,” Light said to reporters at a breakfast. But despite some delays because of the 35-day partial government shutdown, “we’re starting to see the contours” of an oversight response.

The Democrats present a sharp contrast with the Republican approach under former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who “extolled the constitutional value of oversight but saw investigations as a way to dismantle government, not improve it,” Light wrote. “Having promised to do ‘everything—and I mean everything'—to stop the Obama administration, Boehner weaponized the investigatory process for maximum political damage.”

Under the House’s new Democratic leadership, multi-committee, multi-topic oversight probes are under way on issues ranging from the administration’s mishandling of families of undocumented immigrants who cross the border, to Trump’s tax returns, overseas investments and business profits, to the White House use of private e-mail, to the unusual appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general.

Light reviewed 100 congressional and blue-ribbon panel investigations going back to World War II and selected 31 as noteworthy. They addressed everything from 1950s probes of Communists in Hollywood, to the conduct of the Vietnam War, to Watergate and the 1980s savings and loan crisis. His conclusion: Just five of the 31 House probes on the list created very significant impact, another five created moderate impact, and 21 created little or no impact at all, as measured by follow-up in legislation or regulatory change.

A high-profile investigation not well planned can flop. “Bright lights, perp walks, and brutal questioning are no substitutes for thoroughness, determination, persistence and a commitment to careful fact finding,” he said. The vital ingredient of quality “flows from the faithful pursuit of truth regardless of the party in charge. The pressure to respond quickly to fire alarms and focus on setting blame must be tempered to assure that investigators have the freedom they need to sculpt their findings toward maximum impact.”

Accompanying Light on Friday was Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, who has written widely with tough opinions on the Trump administration’s continued “kleptocratic corruption” and “administration by the worst,” as he calls many Trump appointees.

“We’re in a different environment,” Ornstein said. “What do you do with an administration that doesn’t care whether government works well, or in some cases, doesn’t want it to work?”

He cited the influence on Veterans Affairs Department decisions by President Trump’s fellow members of his Mar-A-Lago golf club, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s financial disclosure troubles, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy of “putting children in cages” and reported taking names of journalists at the border.

“It’s police state kind of stuff,” he said. “You can’t throw a stone at the Cabinet” without hitting a scandal. Yet investigations have been largely avoided and politics has become “so tribal,” he said. “Trump gets by one scandal by introducing another,” and the public lacks the bandwidth to follow them all.

Congress’s typical oversight hearing “is outmoded,” Ornstein said, noting how chairmen tend to allow all members to begin with five-minute opening statements that are bogged down by lawmakers’ egos and allow the witnesses to run out the clock. Better to execute some coordination among members about what to cover, he said, and have “experienced counsel interview the witnesses in 30-minute rounds,” then have members come in for 10 minutes each, more “in depth.”

Democrats should go for substantive issues of accountability in governing, both scholars said. Ornstein recommend the House Foreign Affairs Committee conduct hearings on how “Rex Tillerson blew up the Foreign Service,” and how the national security agencies are falling behind on recruiting professionals to protect the nation from cyber attacks.

Light noted that he has heard that agency Freedom of Information Act Offices are “in chaos and confusion, with not enough people” to handle requests. He cited the difficulty of focusing congressional oversight on government performance when there is no one target, no single administration commission to evaluate. “Perhaps Congress needs a Committee on Public Service, he said, acknowledging that such a panel might not be the most exciting place on Capitol Hill.

Discussing the risks of Democratic overreach—particularly in a climate where possible impeachment of the president colors the discussions—Justin Rood, director of the Congressional Oversight Initiative at POGO, said the recent requests by Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., for documents from 81 Trump-related entities were not necessarily how he would have proceeded.

 “But [House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Elijah] Cummings has been very systematic,” Rood said. “It’s not a massive fishing expedition since all of the requested documents have already been vetted and handed over to other bodies.” What the transparency and accountability advocates are seeing, he said, is “a responsiveness after a low point in oversight” over the past few years.