As control of the US Congress shifts to Republicans, serious minds want course correction. That will come with congressional oversight, which must be done right. Congress will use constitutional “tax and spend” authority to stop Democrat overspending but must also maximize oversight powers.
Believe it or not, having power is only half the battle. Using it – and using it right – is what matters. You can buy fancy gym equipment, but if you do not use it – expect no change. You can win back Congress, in a time of national peril – at home and abroad – but if you do not use oversight right, you lose.
What is “doing it right?” Let me offer what “doing it wrong” looks like – since we did it wrong until we learned to do it right in 1995. Republicans had just won both chambers and were giddy. We were ready to clean up what – at that time – was 40 years of Democrat House control, which had created a mess.
We had piles of “mis, mal, and nonfeasance” – that is, mistakes, misuses, abuses, excuses – to clean up. Today, if possible, there is more to investigate, unearth, correct, stop, and reverse. Newt Gingrich became House Speaker and Republicans eagerly implemented their “Contract with America,” ten promises done in 100 days, all good.
But congressional oversight – digging for truth, encouraging whistleblowers, securing documents, vetting testimony, understanding procedural rules, honoring due process, staying on target, not letting politics trump the substance, and finally correcting what was wrong – was much harder.
Hearings were “presentation” and “investigative.” Presentation hearings brought important things to light, helped people understand what was at stake, and featured trusted people. Those were easier.
At that time, drug abuse was high, the Democrat administration was not focused on it nor on the border, trafficking, drug crime, or international sources. I was the counsel charged with hearings into Justice, Defense, and State, so we immediately brought in positive, trusted voices – like Nancy Reagan and Bill Bennett, to explain, galvanize support, and educate the public.
That was the easy part. Hard was holding those responsible for failure accountable, getting resignations, fixing it. That meant digging for things the administration did not want us to see. We did interviews, depositions, document production requests, interrogatories, and subpoenas. We learned.
Next, we tackled the Waco tragedy, an avoidable horror, with investigation and hearings, found shocking facts about the FBI, ATF, Justice, and White House – gave them to the public, which always has a right to know. In time, that got fixed, but not without major democrat pushback.
We pivoted to immigration, found illegalities there, including a systematic effort to tip elections, did criminal referrals. We found failings in the White House, White House Communications Agency, Office of National Drug Control – plus lots and lots of bad decisions, wasted money, abuses, and excuses.
BUT we also made mistakes. We forgot that the Democrats would seek to obstruct, so we misjudged how to prevent that. While gavels went to Republican chairs, Democrats used the rules to delay, distract, create unexpected and disruptive protests, intimidate and even required security to appear.
They would clandestinely contact witnesses that Republican attorneys at talked with or subpoenaed, tell them not to honor subpoenas, to ignore them, to say they did not get them, say they came by fax and were not valid. They would tell witnesses called to give truthful testimony, to demur, coach them.
Of course, Democrats later controlled the oversight process, and turned it into a total circus. They made it something it was never intended to be, a political circus, no longer about stopping waste, fraud, and abuse, good government, legislating better ways of serving, but to twice “impeach” a president on non-impeachable grounds, ignoring historical precedents, procedures, due process, and the Constitution.
So, here is the warning: Congressional oversight, which must be done well to get truth, is never done in a vacuum. It is opposed – on political grounds, with behind-the-scenes, unscrupulous, insidious means.
This may sound unlikely, but the combination of trust in the process, belief that these things would not occur, and our plain ignorance in the 1990s, caused us to waste time, miss opportunities, and fumble.
Some of this was our own fault. For example, we conducted 12 hours of non-stop televised Waco hearings – a deep dive into facts, as if bringing a jury case. We had 100 witnesses in 13 days. But much of that was missed by the public, not least because the media refused to cover it.
Today, we have streaming media – lots of options – but can still misjudge interest as the Democrats did with their rambling, hyper-political impeachments and January 6th riot hearings. In the 1990s, the “media cycle” started late, ended early, so we also wasted critical testimony at both ends of the day.
Likewise, we let the Democrats break up cross-examinations with the “five-minute rule,” rather than creating extended questioning as in a court of law. We let them raise and disrupt with objections, rants, and raucous, childlike behavior. Only when people like a young Chuck Schumer brought an AK-47 to a hearing, did Republicans begin to bring down the hammer.
Main point: In the current moment, oversight is essential. The American people are counting on it. It is one of the few ways we can stop a runaway Administration. Accordingly, it must be done well, eyes wide, committee jurisdictions deconflicted, big topics prioritized, no select committees unless needed. Republicans need to be smart and prepare for obstruction. They need to plan, set rules, define the agenda, allow fair play, not foul play, and open hearings, not a political circus.
Net-net, this is one of the most important opportunities in decades – for the American people. We finally have a chance to see up-close how our government is not working and fix it. We must. The duty falls on Republicans. They should expect obstruction, then get down to business. Get to the truth. Fix it. That is what real congressional oversight of a rogue administration is about.
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