The U.S. House of Representatives now contains two democratic socialists – and both will now sit on the House Oversight Committee. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan will join the committee, alongside progressives Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Ro Khanna of California. All but Khanna are freshman Democrats. “If I based the choices going on the committee based on what people said or their reputations or whatever, I probably wouldn’t have a committee,” the committee’s Democratic chairman, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, told Politico on Tuesday. “I am excited — there were a lot of people that wanted to come on our committee.”
The appointments are significant, and not only because Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Pressley are new to Congress. In November, Ocasio-Cortez joined a protest in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to call for a select committee on a Green New Deal, and Tlaib made headlines earlier this month for saying “We’re going to go in and impeach that motherfucker” at an event with supporters. Coverage of both events patronized the women at times. Tlaib was attacked for her lack of civility, and Ocasio-Cortez for her perceived naivety. “When Ocasio-Cortez made waves by loudly demanding a new committee tasked with drafting a ‘Green New Deal,’ Pelosi quietly brushed it aside last week, as if to say: Kids, brush up on your Schoolhouse Rock,” Bill Scher wrote for Politico on January 3. But if that’s actually what Pelosi believes about Ocasio-Cortez, it’s not at all evident in the New York congresswoman’s committee assignments. Ocasio-Cortez had already been appointed to the Financial Services Committee, and received a waiver to sit on Oversight as well. In addition, Pelosi not only refused to condemn Tlaib’s remarks; she’s now appointed the Michigan representative to a powerful committee.
As its name suggests, the House Oversight Committee has broad leeway to investigate government personnel. That’s a problem for President Trump, now that Democrats have regained control of the House. Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Pressley, and Khanna will now play an influential role in any investigation of the president’s misconduct. Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, is expected to testify before the committee at some point this year (he was originally scheduled to testify on February 7, but announced on Wednesday that he would postpone that testimony due to alleged threats from the president).
So why the high-profile assignments for these freshmen? Despite the real ideological differences that separate Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Pressley from Pelosi, the three left-wing Democrats all supported Pelosi for speaker (as did Khanna). Internal opposition to another Pelosi term largely came from the party’s conservatives and moderates, not from its growing left-wing faction. It’s plausible that the assignments are a reward for loyalty. They also make a lot of strategic sense. The party has suffered from a weak back bench for a long time, and roles on committees like Oversight can develop new legislators into future party leaders and candidates for higher office.
An Oversight Committee with Pressley, Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, and Khanna is also likely to be aggressive in its pursuit of Trump, and that may be exactly what party leadership wants. On Wednesday, CNN reported that the committee will launch a probe into the administration’s handling of the security clearance process, with a specific focus on “national security adviser John Bolton, senior adviser to the President Jared Kushner, former White House aide Rob Porter and former national security adviser K.T. McFarland.” Party leaders, including Pelosi, have avoided explicit references to impeachment. But Trump’s time may yet come, and if it does, Oversight’s responsibilities mean it will play a key role in his downfall.