Soon-to-be House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) is telling his fellow Democratic lawmakers to think about the next two years this way: The White House is the client, House Democrats are the defense attorney. Indeed, the Biden administration He has assembled a coterie of legal, legislative and communications specialists to map the likely vectors of GOP oversight and will hire more in the effort. Ashley Etienne, who headed the House Democrats’ impeachment war room, has sent top protégés to communications positions at federal agencies Republicans have indicated they are eager to question: the Departments of Homeland Security (security over border), Health and Human Services (over COVID ), and Education (overwhelming indoctrination).
Democrats, after all, are aware of how Republicans plan to use their control of the House of Representatives. In fact, the GOP has said it out loud for months. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the soon-to-be chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Republicans would use their oversight powers to “frame the 2024 race” — a race in which they must “make sure [Trump] Won.” Meanwhile, House Oversight chairman Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) vowed that the intensity of the investigations under his committee would “prevent Joe Biden from running” for another term.
The feelings go back to a not-so-distant era on Capitol Hill, when a Tea Party boom wrested control of the House midway through Barack Obama’s first term — the time when President Darrell Issa ( R-Calif.), who was chair of the Cathaoirleach at that time. The House Oversight Committee promised to do this after the 2010 midterms: “I want to hold seven hearings a week, sometimes 40 weeks.” With little hope of passing legislation under divided government, Republicans are looking to explore everything from Covid to critical race theory.
For lawmakers and operatives of both parties who survived that era of GOP questioning, they warn that this new regime will bring much of the same — but worse. “This crop of House Republicans makes Darrell Issa look like an intellectual,” says Eric Schultz, who was deputy White House press secretary during that era.
After House Republicans recaptured the House in a landslide victory during the 2010 midterms, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a mandate to his new majority: “We’re in the communications business now,” recalls Kurt Bardella, who served as Issa’s spokesman. The centerpiece of that guidance was Issa’s House Oversight Committee, tasked with questioning and amplifying any scandal from the Obama administration. While many in the leadership were eagerly anticipating their new Tea Party majority, Issa welcomed some of the tougher new lawmakers, such as Reps. Trey Gowdy (R.C.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), on its committee..
Their work began in earnest with an investigation into Obama’s management of Operation Fast and Furious, a George W. Bush-era program that allowed illegal gun sales to track Mexican drug cartels. In September 2011, the House Energy and Commerce Committee declared bankruptcy for Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturer that received a $535 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy. The committee pulled then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu into Congress for more than five hours of testimony. Then, a year later, Islamic militants attacked the US Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, leaving three Americans dead. The attack prompted ten separate GOP-led investigations into the Obama administration.
None of the investigations ever found substantial wrongdoing, but that didn’t stop the oversight from attracting the attention of the political media industrial complex. “There was a deliberate communication strategy: Flood the zone and take advantage of media competition to break things,” Bardella explains. Recent arrival of Politics and his thirst for a microscope had just taken over the DC media landscape, playing right into the committee’s hands. Republicans could melt four or five news cycles out of one request for information with a formula that went something like this: “Step one, voluntary document release request; step two, threat of subpoena; step three, issue the subpoena,” says Bardella. Never mind that the coverage rarely asked hard questions about the validity of what was being investigated. “I don’t think reporters and Washington realized how irresponsible Republicans were willing to be,” Schultz says.
Boehner, by some measures, would regret his mandate as the colleagues he empowered became increasingly tough on Obama administration officials. The House held Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress during the investigation into Operation Fast and Furious, but GOP lawmakers asked for more – Boehner dismissed as illegitimate. In fact, former Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), who led the Solyndra investigation, said Boehner’s lack of support took the wind out of the conduct of his investigation. “He said he felt we had disparaged the Congresses too much, and that ours was not as important as others,” Stearns recalls. “That’s the kind of thing that caused Boehner to lose his speech.”
The Solyndra investigation was based on Republicans arguing that political allies were repaid for their investment in the bankrupt solar panel maker ahead of taxpayers. But GOP lawmakers couldn’t prove that — and, in fact, the program done money and helped accelerate development in renewable energy companies, a 2014 report from NPR found.
Boehner-era brake pumping may be harder to find in this Congress. Having made his way to the gavel, new Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy can’t be a check on much of anything — and he hasn’t suggested any interest in restraint when it comes to investigating the Biden administration. McCarthy’s only hits so far are more than a dozen impeachment motions filed against Biden and various administration officials. “I think the country doesn’t like impeachment being used for political purposes at all,” McCarthy said Punchbowl News in October.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-Ga.), reinstated to her committee assignments after Democrats took them out of the last Congress, says she wants to serve on the Oversight Committee — a request that new chairman Comer expressed his welcome.
Do the Democrats have a chance in this new era? Getting the right messengers can help lead Democrats on key committees, according to veterans of 2010s GOP investigations. Bardella recalls then-minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) choosing the rare violation of Democratic seniority when she installed Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) as a ranking member of Oversight in 2011. Cummings was politically minded and knew how to communicate effectively – he was the perfect foil for Issa,” recalls Bardella. Last month, House Democrats selected Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who was among the leaders of the House investigation into the Jan. 6 uprising, to lead Oversight, a choice recommended by Bardella.
Another advantage for Democrats, veterans say, is that the GOP continues to zero in on the culture wars. Ashley Etienne, who was in charge of communications for Cummings during that era, recalls Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke not allowing GOP lawmakers to testify at their Oversight hearing on contraception. The GOP’s denial of Fluke’s testimony backfired. Wen’s Democrats allowed her to testify later at an independent hearing, which earned her nearly two weeks of positive news cycles — fueled, in part, by voters’ fears about the future of abortion rights. Bardella says Democrats should look to take advantage of the times Republicans try to hold hearings on topics like trans rights. “If they’re going after the LBGTQ community and the hospitals that treat them, the Democrats can put a face on what it looks like,” says Bardella. “If you have members of congress lambasting a patient telling that story, that’s not going to look good.”
And perhaps, overall, GOP inquiries seem more absurd than ever. “At least with Benghazi and Fast and Furious, those are at least controlled actions,” says a Democratic official working on oversight investigations. “When you cross the rubicon with ‘Dr. Fauci collaborated with China to launch the pandemic’ or ‘Hunter Biden’s overseas work is why the strategic petroleum reserve is running out’ – these are just conspiracy theories .”
“Back then, we were more bipartisan — I don’t think we would be bipartisan today,” Stearns says. “You lose your authenticity if it’s like a political witch hunt.”
Yet Democrats are taking the GOP’s ambitions seriously. The White House and House Democrats have kept a line of communication open regarding oversight preparations. Jeffries was elected as the leader of the House Democrats, in a party, because of his discipline as a party messenger, a trait he emphasized when he served as manager during the first Trump impeachment. They are also preparing their kind of counterattack: the Senate is still under Democratic control, and its leadership has emerging plans to keep the investigations into the Trump administration. “Hunter Biden’s laptop looks like nothing compared to what Jared and Ivanka have done in the federal government,” says Bardella. “That needs to be addressed every day.”