WASHINGTON — Late last month, two new job listings appeared on a congressional bulletin for staffers to help Democrats conduct investigations into a variety of topics, from energy and the environment to cybersecurity.
The listings were a small but significant clue about Democrats’ strategy for the 116th Congress, which will be sworn in next January.
Last night’s election means that as the party in control of the House of Representatives, the Democrats will chair all 21 of that chamber’s committees. With that control comes the power to launch investigations.
President Trump seemed aware of the threat, blasting a preemptive counterattack via Twitter on Wednesday morning.
If the Democrats think they are going to waste Taxpayer Money investigating us at the House level, then we will likewise be forced to consider investigating them for all of the leaks of Classified Information, and much else, at the Senate level. Two can play that game!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2018
Democrats — should they wish to do so — can investigate the president’s finances, his 2016 presidential campaign’s relationship with Russia and ethical transgressions by members of his cabinet. For the first time in the Trump era, the president’s opponents will have subpoena powers.
But these new powers could also be a trap, according to interviews with multiple Democratic staffers, former legislators and others familiar with the matters in question. They fear that Trump’s staunchest critics could lead the Democrats to overplay their hand and squander their newfound investigative powers on partisan forays likely to yield little in the way of insight about the administration’s workings.
Democratic leaders could dig into Trump’s finances and his relationship with Russia, but those are matters already covered by the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Russia may be the least interesting thing the Democrats investigate,” said one congressional source.
As the Democrats prepare to launch a bevy of investigations into the Trump administration, the staffer said a single question must guide their endeavors: “Where are we going to have maximum effectiveness?”
The most complex matter of all will be the Russia investigation, which falls under the purview of the House Intelligence Committee, whose chairman will almost certainly be Adam Schiff, D-Calif. Schiff has publicly chastised the leadership of Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. — a Trump ally — calling his investigation of Russia’s potential involvement in the 2016 election woefully inadequate.
At the same time, House Democrats will have to make sure they’re not working at cross-purposes with the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has taken a bipartisan approach. Its chairman, Richard Burr, R-N.C., and ranking member, Mark Warner, D-Va., have generally agreed on the importance and scope of an investigation into Russian interference. And they appear to see little reason for the House of Representatives to duplicate those efforts. It is not clear just how much a change in leadership would change that.
Because it doesn’t technically have the authority to do so under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the House Intelligence Committee will be unable to subpoena the records of Silicon Valley technology companies, and privacy restrictions may keep Democrats from obtaining all the financial records they seek, making that line of investigative inquiry a better task for the Financial Services Committee. The chair of that committee will likely be Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., one of Trump’s most vociferous critics in Congress.
“We have to make the case for what this means to our national security,” said a Democratic staffer experienced in working on investigations. “House Republicans have refused to pursue the full extent and magnitude of the threat Russia poses to our nation.” The staffer suggested it would be more useful to make any Russia-related investigation about election security, as opposed to focusing on Trump himself.
Henry Waxman, the former Democratic congressman from California who sat on the House Oversight Committee for 12 years, from 1997 until 2009 — the last two years as chairman — warns against probes that would be regarded as attempts to personally damage Trump. “Use oversight powers to examine what his administration has been doing,” he counsels.
He noted in particular the rollback of regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior, as well as what has been described as Trump’s attempt to sabotage the Affordable Care Act, the signature legislative accomplishment of former President Barack Obama.
Waxman also cautioned against attempting to investigate Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who many Democrats believe lied to Congress during his confirmation proceedings over the summer. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., has indicated a willingness to investigate Kavanaugh, and some liberals hope to impeach the justice, who was accused of sexual impropriety. “I don’t know what would be accomplished” by a Kavanaugh investigation, he said. “It would look very, very partisan.”
The senior Democratic staffer said Democrats should pursue “oversight in a bipartisan way and starting where we have agreement.” The staffer noted, for example, that the Oversight Committee’s outgoing chairman — Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who is retiring from Congress — and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee’s current ranking member, sent joint letters to the White House about security clearances given to high-ranking officials like Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.
That investigation would have to be taken up by Cummings, who has expressed interest in the matter. As chairman of the House Oversight Committee, he would become one of the most powerful Democrats in the entire Congress, with broad powers to investigate the Trump administration. “My aim is to do what I swore to do — uphold the constitution,” Cummings said in a statement provided to Yahoo News. “We are required to be a check and balance over the executive branch. We haven’t been doing that because Republicans have been aiders and abetters.”
According to a Cummings staffer, he will seek to investigate the cost of prescription drugs; the controversial placement of a citizenship question on the U.S. Census, which some believe is a Republican strategy intended to ultimately influence congressional redistricting; funding for means to combat opioid abuse; and funding for the U.S. Postal Service.
The staffer said Cummings will also pursue some of the most controversial actions of the Trump administration, including the president’s practice of separating families of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. Cummings will also look at Trump’s potential violations of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prevents him from using the presidency for profit and personal gain.
The environment is another potentially fruitful line of investigations, which could focus on Scott Pruitt, who in July resigned as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Ryan Zinke, the embattled Department of the Interior chief, who faces more than a dozen investigations of his own. Both men have run afoul of personal ethics laws and have faced criticisms from scientists and conservationists for suppressing science, in particular work affirming the reality and danger of climate change.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., who stands to become chairman of the Natural Resources Committee in January, said he was particularly interested in looking at “the dumbing down of science within the Department of Interior.” A staffer for Grijalva said that while it was important to focus on Zinke’s personal transgressions, there were more important matters at hand, such as Zinke’s shrinking of national monuments and giveaways of federally managed land. “Our job is to oversee the department, not just the secretary,” the staffer said. “Our priority is the policies.”
Similarly, a staffer for Don Beyer, D-Va., said that the congressman, who is on the Natural Resources Committee, wants to investigate Andrew Wheeler, who replaced Pruitt as EPA chief. Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist, and though he has faced fewer personal scandals, he has kept the EPA on the same regulation-averse course as Pruitt.
Beyer, who is from northern Virginia, will also likely investigate Trump’s involvement in stopping the construction of a new FBI headquarters, which would have potentially been located in northern Virginia. Trump wants the FBI to remain in its current location, almost right across Pennsylvania Avenue from his Trump International Hotel.
The staffer cautioned that attempting to serve senior Trump officials with subpoenas will likely lead to intervention by lawyers and months of inevitable delay because of Trump’s “penchant for stonewalling.”
For Cummings, the likely House Oversight chairman, investigations by Democrats could restore the political norms Trump has violated. “I believe that with President Trump we are in the middle of a storm,” he said in a statement emailed by his office. “The question is not whether the storm will end. The question is, ‘Where will we be after the storm?’”
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