Taking control of the House of Representatives will give Democrats a gold mine worth of opportunities to investigate the ethically challenged administration of President Donald Trump. That’s a potential nightmare for the White House but also a political minefield for the winners.
There will be probes into the president’s financial dealings, more on his connections to Russia, inspections of the questionable policies and practices of some Cabinet members, and, says the next Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, “a deep dive” into ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
“We’re going to do our job; they may think that’s a nightmare,” said Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who will become chair of the House Oversight Committee — a body that showed no appetite for oversight under Republicans for the last two years. Cummings said in an interview that Democrats would be “careful, methodical and transparent.”
He and other Democrats understand the pitfalls of overreach following the Republicans’ partisan excesses during the presidency of Barack Obama. “We can’t look like Torquemada,” said Representative Gerald Connally of Virginia, an Oversight Committee member, referring to the grand inquisitor of 15th-century Spain. That’s even more true given the Democrats’ slender new House majority and the Republicans’ added strength in the Senate.
The Democrats’ investigative course depends in part on the actions of Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is looking at connections between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign. If he brings charges in the next couple of months against Trump operatives, Democrats are likely to narrow the scope of their congressional inquiries. If the president tries to sabotage Mueller, for example through a new and hostile attorney general, there will be a concerted effort by congressional Democrats to publicly reveal whatever Trump tries to hide.
Whether the new Democratic House chooses experience or fresh faces for its leadership will be an important factor in guiding and restraining the inquiries. Strong direction will be needed to set priorities and to prevent opportunistic committee and subcommittee chairmen from seeking daily headlines.
That argues for keeping Nancy Pelosi in the speaker’s chair. She was effectively demonized by Republicans during the campaign as a symbol of coastal elitism, and now there are a handful of new Democratic representatives who will arrive in Washington committed to voting against her. But no alternative to the California lawmaker is as skillful, tough or more persuasive to left-wingers who will be impatient for action on pet measures like abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency or impeachment of Trump. A compromise may be for Pelosi to make a two-year leadership pledge, move younger members to top spots and let others be the party’s public face.
Democrats will need savvy leaders to prevent cheap shots like improper leaks of Trump’s tax returns. It would also be counterproductive for committees to spend time looking backward at controversies like the ethics scandals that forced out former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, or at whether Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh told the truth during his confirmation hearings. Those are yesterday’s issues. And it would be stupid for Democrats to let themselves be baited by Trump’s demagoguery; he’s more effective in the gutter than his critics.
Trump will be ready to mount a counterattack accusing Democrats of behaving like partisan attack dogs; he loves to play victim of witch hunts. There are sensitive issues that will require careful consideration. For example, Congress may have the authority to get Trump’s tax returns — the president has repeatedly reneged on a promise to release them — but perhaps not to present them to the public.
Cummings said he wants Democrats to make sure that the 2020 census, conducted by the Commerce Department, is not being manipulated for political reasons.
But much of his Oversight panel’s work will focus on potential conflicts of interest involving Trump and his family.
If Democratic firebrands succeed in the effort to push forward an impeachment inquiry, the Judiciary Committee would be the venue. Most party leaders have argued for a go-slow approach, at least until the special counsel’s probe is completed. There are more productive potential investigative avenues for the judiciary panel, like the politicization of the Justice Department and actions intended to suppress turnout of poor and minority voters who generally favor Democrats.
The Judiciary Committee is one of the most sharply divided ideologically, with the Democrats dominated by their left wing and Republicans by their right.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy.