Devin Nunes has jeopardized the oversight role of Congress
© Greg Nash

Congress — as one of three branches in the essential architecture of our separation of powers — has a constitutional responsibility to oversee the executive branch, regardless of who is president. The judicious exercise of that responsibility is critical to the health of this nation. Congressman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), in whom many placed their hopes of a bipartisan, fact-based investigation, has defaced those basic constitutional principles, and it is not certain that he even understands the significance of what he has done.

Congressman Nunes, as chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, is currently investigating the role of Russian influence in our 2016 election. To conduct any investigation of the executive branch, much the less one with this degree of importance, sensitivity, and international ramifications, requires patience, a commitment to the facts, transparency among committee members, and bipartisanship at every turn. That’s what is necessary in order for the American public to have confidence in the final results.

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Yet, Congressman Nunes precipitously and unilaterally disclosed information from his committee’s investigation to the White House and the public without notifying his Democratic counterparts or any other members of his committee. This was obviously an attempt to shore up unsubstantiated claims by President Trump that President Obama ordered Trump’s “wires tapped” just before the election. In addition, the information he disclosed may even be classified. In doing so, Congressman Nunes has risked his committee’s entire investigation. It was a bad bargain for the country.

 

The Supreme Court has long recognized the important role of Congressional oversight in our system of government, calling it an “essential” and “broad” power that includes  “inquiries concerning the administration of existing laws…and probes…to expose corruption, inefficiency or waste.” It is not meant to be used in a partisan effort to support a president. It is built into the framework of our checks and balances to offset the power of the presidency and the executive branch.

There is a general consensus that Congress has lost its way in meeting its responsibility to conduct fact-based, bipartisan, reliable oversight. True, on many of the day-to-day, routine matters that Congress is called to address, Members from both parties work together and carry out the responsibilities of the legislative branch. But too often in the high profile matters, or where insignificant matters are made high-profile, some chairs of Congressional committees have resorted to partisan tactics and purposes, prejudging the outcome of the investigation, and tainting the results of the committees’ findings. Such oversight is a waste of taxpayer dollars and does major damage to the important powers of Congress to keep the three branches on an even keel.

By Congressman Nunes’ actions, including his unilateral cancellation of next week’s hearings and his apparent flip-flopping on one of the key issues in the investigation, he has not only reinforced the view that Congress has repeatedly failed to conduct bipartisan oversight of important matters, he has maimed his committee’s ability to conduct a fair and credible investigation. Unless he changes his way of operating — and decides to be fully transparent with the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking member, Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffIntel Dem decries White House 'gag order' after Bannon testimony 'Total free-for-all' as Bannon clashes with Intel members Mueller has subpoenaed Bannon in Russia probe: report MORE (D-Calif.) and the committee members from both sides of the aisle — any hearings or work product from the House Intelligence Committee will be viewed as an irrelevant, partisan judgment.

The investigative missteps on the House side make it even more important for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) to conduct its investigation in a fully bipartisan manner and to commit itself and its staff to finding the facts and revealing them in an unbiased manner to the American people. Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Senate Intel chairman: No need for committee to interview Bannon McConnell: Russia probe must stay bipartisan to be credible MORE (R-N.C.) and Ranking Member Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Dem lawmaker wants briefing on major chip vulnerabilities Week ahead: Tech giants to testify on extremist content MORE (D-Va.) have a heavy responsibility to thoroughly investigate the claims and rumors about Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election and to do so in a fully transparent manner within the committee. They should direct their staffs to work together, sharing all documents and with both staffs participating in all interviews and the planning of and participation in any hearings.

It would be preferable for Congress to appoint a special select committee to do the investigation. But one way or another, it is incumbent upon Congress to make sure that the American people are given the unbiased facts on the matter of Russian involvement in the 2016 election by requiring a truly bipartisan Congressional investigation.

Carl LevinCarl LevinCongress: The sleeping watchdog Congress must not give companies tax reasons to move jobs overseas A lesson on abuse of power by Obama and his Senate allies MORE served as U.S. Senator from Michigan from 1979 to 2015. He currently serves as chairman of the Levin Center at Wayne State University Law School that trains legislative staff in factual bipartisan oversight.


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