Members of the Democrat-controlled US House need to think hard about what “overreach” means, and whether their posture undermines America’s respect for the institution. The combination of entitlement, arrogance, ignorance, intransigence and smugness is unappealing to Americans – of every stripes.
For nearly five years, I served as staff director and chief counsel for a congressional oversight committee – managing hearings for the US House, Waco (1995) and Nancy Reagan’s appearance to Defense, State, Justice and NASA (1995-99). Historically, committee chairs served with dignity, respected witnesses. Honestly, so did ranking minority members, including US House Oversight Committee Chairman, Elijah Cummings who was ranking on our subcommittee.
But things are changing. If Democrats are not careful, they will destroy respect for congressional oversight, and make a mockery of what has historically been a constitutional duty.
To be clear, the US Congress has a constitutional right to oversight of executive operations. Thus, during my tenure as a staff director and counsel, we conducted investigative hearings into lots of misfeasance, malfeasance, and nonfeasance in the executive branch.
If members liked media, since it affected their reelection, the goal was making government work – accountably and cost-effectiveness. We did not waste taxpayer money on raw political jousting, disrespect history, aim to embarrass executive witnesses, issue unnecessary subpoenas, hunting documents and conversations that did not exist. That was not our job.
Our hearings covered “return on investment” from State programs, capitalization of US Coast Guard, domestic-international balance at the Drug Enforcement Administration, authorization of a cabinet-rank Office of National Drug Control, metrics in substance abuse, defense inventory management, Strategic Defense Initiative, F-18 fighter and V-22, systemic failures within immigration and naturalization.
In short, much of what we did was boring but important, not political. The second goal was educating the executive branch, ourselves and the public on expectations for public expenditures.
Now, turn the page – to 2019. What do we have? In the latest “oversight” hearing, Democrats adopted the Kavanaugh hearing’s entitlement and smugness, impunity and intentional infliction of embarrassment. The US House Judiciary Committee aimed to humiliate President Trump by spitting accusations at Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, with a week left in office.
The committee’s hubris, grandstanding, insinuation and arrogance was a disgrace. The truth-finding function of Congress became a slave to politics. But Democrats are making a grave mistake. America does not like this kind of behavior. It is unbecoming to the institution and office to which they were elected.
What did these Democrats do? They made a Shakespearean play of abusing subpoena power, demanding an appearance from a departing official to excoriate him for actions they knew he had not taken, villainized an innocent man – to promote their anti-Trump narrative.
When the Acting Attorney General agreed to voluntarily appear, explained ongoing investigations are not discussed in public settings, refused to speculate or violate his oath, he was pinioned. Or that was the aim.
House Judiciary’s Democrat majority, agreement in hand for a voluntary appearance, nevertheless voted to subpoena him, throwing away a century of tradition, dignity and comity between branches. They played politics, to put him in the wrong.
In the hearing room, things got worse. They took turns impaling him with insinuations and peppering him with questions they knew were unanswerable or purely political. Open investigations are not hashed out in public. They knew that. They asked anyway.
They cut him off, ridiculed him, hurled insinuations at him, and asserted he was involved in “obstruction,” according to Representative Hank Johnson (D-Ga). Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) demanded repeated answers until the witness snapped back. Whitaker said: “There has been no event, no decision that has required me to take any action, and I have not interfered in any way with the special counsel’s investigation.”
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), famous for mistreatment of her own staff, resignation from House Judiciary Committee chairmanship for ethical reasons – and for declaring Pathfinder had taken pictures on Mars of the flag Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted (Note: That was the moon, not Mars), attacked. She asked for more time. The witness piped up. She lashed out, telling him he was not funny. If impertinent, it was comic.
There we have it. Democrat House is empowered, smug and unified in stopping a southern border wall, defending late term abortions, not applauding anything President Trump has done to improve the American economy, national security, international trade, or individual liberties, from faith and free speech to energy independence and an appeal to end enmity.
Nothing illustrates this odd sense of “all power to socialist control” – traditional oversight made a slave to politics – than the Wall Street Journal’s front page today. I looked hard at the photos. A lone witness, honest Acting Attorney General, looking up plaintively at an all-powerful, arrogant congressional panel – their seats five feet above him.
It was like watching Jimmy Stewart put in that low chair below the all-powerful Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. Dorothy below that fiery Wizard of Oz. There was Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) and his row of Grand Inquisitors leaning over, waving their hands at a lone, lonely witness.
So, 2020 spoiler alert: Americans do not like this kind of thing. It smacks of arrogance they despise. Members of the Democrat-controlled US House need to think hard about what “overreach” means, whether their posture undermines America’s respect for the institution – and the high purpose – they serve. No kidding.