Before members of the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives can even issue a single subpoena to the Donald Trump administration, a lot has to happen to determine how effective they can really be in exercising their new oversight powers.
The last time a different party took control of the House was in 2010. At the time, I was the spokesperson for House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ranking member and soon-to-be chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Looking back, I can tell you we underestimated how time-consuming and consequential to our success that transition period going from the minority to the majority would be.
The oversight committee, or OGR as we called it internally, has the largest committee staff in the House. This is by design. The committee has very narrow legislative jurisdiction, so most of the committee staff are investigators and not policy experts. The reality is, when you go from minority to majority, you literally double your staff from 40 to 80. While the bulk of congressional committees exist for policymaking, OGR’s primary purpose is to conduct vigorous oversight of the federal government. The bulk of the people who fill these roles are seasoned experts, prosecutors and lawyers who have a background in government investigations.
The incoming chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) will spend the next few weeks focusing on how he wants to organize the committee in terms of its new members and subcommittee configuration. When Republicans took over in 2010, we made a point to elevate new members like Jason Chaffetz and Trey Gowdy – both of whom eventually chaired the committee. Members like Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows became much more visible as well – they have since grown into more prominent roles in the House via their leadership of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus.
Because of the unique breadth of the committee’s jurisdiction, there are times when investigations will overlap with the domains of other congressional panels. For example, anything touching the issue of Russia’s meddling in our elections would overlap with House oversight, intelligence, foreign affairs, homeland security and judiciary committees. Democrats should consider having as many members as possible serve concurrently on committees whose roles are likely to intersect. We had a number of members, including Issa, who served on both the oversight and judiciary committees. Having that continuity between the two committees was very helpful.
In many ways, the committee becomes a television production. Hearings featuring showdowns with Cabinet secretaries become must-see-TV. Because of that dynamic, it is important for the success of the majority to have members who are smart, measured, disciplined and good on TV. Members like Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) and Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) all have legal backgrounds and have become some of the most visible House Democrats in the past year.
For all the partisan rancor that dominated headlines during Congressman Issa’s tenure, there was one consistent place of common ground with Ranking Member Cummings. Issa and Cummings would appear together, united in front of the House Administration Committee, the committee in charge of their budget. While I don’t expect this show of bipartisanship to last, it was a credit that even back then, Cummings supported the role of congressional oversight.
Investigations require manpower and resources. If the Democratic leadership is serious about conducting thorough and legitimate oversight of the executive branch, they need to give the oversight committee the resources it needs to be effective. Lost in all the headlines of the Republican tenure was the fact that under Republican leadership’s misguided efforts to demonstrate so-called fiscal restraint, the committee’s budget has been steadily cut ― by more than $1.58 million since 2011. If ever there was a time to restore the committee’s budget to 2011 levels, now would be it!
On the other side of the aisle, an important question for the Republicans to address between now and January is identifying who will be their ranking member to go up against Cummings. This person will effectively become Trump’s public defender.
It was no accident that when Republicans took control in 2010, the Democrats installed Cummings as the ranking member, bypassing former Chairman Ed Towns (D-N.Y.) and the more senior Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.). They understood how important it was to have the right person in place to serve as a foil to Issa and the new Republican majority. Trump will now want someone who plays well to the Fox News crowd to be his forceful defender. Seems like the perfect job for Meadows or Jordan.
Just as we experienced back in 2010, a lot of the immediate public posturing revolves around which investigations Democrats will pursue or how many subpoenas they will issue. But before Democrats load their “subpoena cannon,” they need to make sure they build the ship the right way; otherwise, their cannon will misfire.
Kurt Bardella is a HuffPost columnist and served as the spokesperson and senior adviser for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2009-2013. Follow him on Twitter: @kurtbardella