Yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a new select committee to oversee the disbursement of $2 trillion in economic rescue funds. House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff has proposed a committee-level investigation into reports of political favoritism in the distribution of medical gear and other emergency supplies. President Trump preemptively announced his position on these probes. Unsurprisingly, he dismisses either committee and rejects any legitimate role for oversight at all.
“This is not the time for politics, endless partisan investigations — here we go again — have already done extraordinary damage to our country in recent years,” he announced preemptively, before any reporter could even ask. “You see what happens. It’s a witch hunt after witch hunt after witch hunt.”
Having lowered the bar to the ground and stomped it repeatedly, Trump has rendered his wholesale rejection of oversight into a nonissue. But measured against history, his stance is extraordinary. He is attempting to destroy a vital part of how government should, and used to, operate. And he has brought the entire Republican Party along with him to this dangerous position.
When Congress enacted the bank bailout in 2008, the same bill tried to ensure the money was spent properly by creating both an oversight panel in the Executive branch and a congressional oversight panel. When crafting the coronavirus relief bill, which spends three times as much money, Republicans fought all oversight. After holding out for several days, they relented to an inspector general to oversee the spending, but refused to allow the office any subpoena power. As a compromise, Republicans allowed the inspector general to notify Congress if the administration “unreasonably refused” access to information about the spending.
After the bill passed, Trump added a signing statement to the bill asserting that he would refuse to even cooperate with even this modest requirement. “I do not understand, and my Administration will not treat, this provision as permitting the [inspector general] to issue reports to the Congress without the presidential supervision required,” he wrote.
Pelosi cast the creation of an oversight panel as a basic discipline to ensure taxpayer funds are spent properly. “Where there’s money, there’s also frequently mischief,” she explained. Republicans have instead coalesced around the position that there’s little reason to worry about big government possibly misallocating some of the hundreds of billions of dollars it’s frantically shoveling out the door with minimal oversight. “This seems really redundant,” said Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, suggesting that the inspector general — the one Republicans had to be forced into accepting, and who has no subpoena power, and who Trump has announced in advance he plans to ignore — is all the oversight needed.
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial today sneering at the oversight panel is a bit more revealing. The panel’s “goal will not be to protect federal dollars but to highlight unpopular companies that get a grant or loan and then claim it’s the result of political favoritism,” it insists. “The only question is which ones will become the next Halliburton (Dick Cheney during Iraq) or Koch brothers (all-purpose villains).”
So the Journal has defined out of existence the very possibility of misallocated funds. This is an editorial page that has spent decades promoting corrosive skepticism of the efficacy of government spending, depicting even the most seemingly innocuous programs as little more than bribes by self-interested bureaucrats. But apparently public-choice theory goes out the window as soon as the cash is being handed out by an executive as competent and upstanding as Donald Trump.
Schiff’s proposed committee would strike a little more deeply at Trump’s alleged misconduct. “We need to make sure there’s no favoritism in terms of political allies, no discrimination against states or governors based on lack of presidential flattery,” he announced.
There is plenty of evidence of such favoritism on the surface. Florida, a swing state run by a Trump ally, is having more success getting help from Washington than other states. A White House official recently told the Washington Post that Trump’s reelection is a paramount factor. “The president knows Florida is so important for his reelection so when DeSantis says that, it means a lot,” the official said. “He pays close attention to what Florida wants.” And Trump has repeatedly indicated that he expects governors seeking his help to lavish him with compliments — which he is already employing in campaign ads — and stifle any complaints. “It’s a two-way street. [Governors] have to treat us well, too,” he explained at one point. And: “You know what I say? If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.” And: “We don’t like to see complaints.”
How much more evidence is needed? Isn’t it at least worth looking into the possibility that Trump is allowing his campaign needs to infect his decisions about which governors to help the most? If nothing else, the existence of such a panel would dissuade Trump and other officials from improper actions, knowing they might be exposed.
Trump’s allies have picked up his argument that the coronavirus — the threat they spent weeks dismissing — is such a dire emergency that Congress cannot divert its attention into ensuring he follows the law. “Now, the United States is in the midst of a terrible, life-and-death crisis with the virus and its health and economic effects,” complains Byron York, “and the investigation machine is revving up once more.”
Notably, this principle is not dissuading Senate Republicans from pursuing their investigation into Hunter Biden led by Senator Ron “death is an unavoidable part of life” Johnson. “While the chairman is primarily focused on the once-in-a-generation crisis we’re experiencing, our oversight staff is continuing to push ahead with their work.” So it appears it is possible for Congress to conduct oversight and simultaneously continue working on the coronavirus crisis. Or maybe such multitasking is only justified when the subject is as urgent as chasing down rumors of alleged, unfounded impropriety during the last presidential administration.
Historically, presidents have generally cooperated even with congressional investigations that are aimed directly at charges of impropriety. The Obama administration endorsed congressional investigations into its handling of the Benghazi attacks, and allegations of IRS targeting. Why? Because Obama both agreed that some underlying conduct was a problem (an embassy was unprepared for an attack, the IRS improperly applying its standards of what organizations qualify for tax exemption) and believed that the investigation would clear the administration of wrongdoing. Which they did.
The Republican response to Obama being cleared of wrongdoing was to demand more and more investigations under the direction of crazier and crazier Republicans, ultimately totaling ten investigations, in a fruitless attempt to confirm their conspiracy theories. McCarthy once irritated his colleagues by blurting out that the purpose of the Benghazi hearings was to rough up the Democratic presidential nominee. But the Benghazi experience is telling. Republicans believe Benghazi-style “oversight” —ginning up partisan attacks in the guise of legitimate oversight — is the only kind.
Trump has taken this tendency to its natural conclusion. He has trained his supporters to reflexively dismiss any allegation of wrongdoing, or even any investigation into potential wrongdoing, as a “witch hunt.” The more witch hunts, the more evidence Trump’s enemies are persecuting him. “Some House Democrats have been engaged in a long campaign to remove the president from office, using whatever weapon — Russia, Stormy Daniels, Ukraine, Michael Cohen, emoluments, whatever — might be available at the moment,” laments the loyal Byron York, who seems to view the long and growing list of misconduct by Trump as evidence of his innocence.