The least-discussed norms President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger welcomes baby boy Tennessee lawmaker presents self-defense bill in 'honor' of Kyle Rittenhouse Five things to know about the New York AG's pursuit of Trump MORE and his acolytes have blowtorched these 18 months is congressional oversight. Most discussions have been about White House, foreign policy, American institution, and rule of law norms. Oversight should be right up there, specifically related to Russian election interference.
There are no Republicans left in Congress, that I know of, who know what is or isn’t credible oversight. Their ignorance prevents them from understanding the mess they have made. Oversight by Congress is a lost art. What Republicans have wrought is downright destruction. If Democrats re-take either chamber of Congress in November, they are obligated to resuscitate that function Republicans have allowed to atrophy in service to their president.
I entered Congress in 1982, working for Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyBig Tech critics launch new project Senate antitrust bill has serious ramifications for consumers and small businesses Hillicon Valley: Amazon's Alabama union fight — take two MORE. I was trained by post-Watergate staff, Republicans and Democrats, at a time when Congress was taking back power from the Imperial Presidency. We kicked some patoot during the Reagan years when corruption, greed and mismanagement were rampant. I was a Republican, but I worked with good-government members on both sides. We won. My boss was re-elected because of our oversight campaign against profligate defense spending. When we started, his approval rating in Iowa was under 50 percent; when we finished, he won re-election by 66 percent in 1986. He is still in Congress.
As a 34-year veteran of government oversight, I am horrified by the assault from Republicans on oversight norms. It has hobbled the credibility of the institution. Senate and House leaders are to blame for a Wild West approach by committee chairmen and staff.
Let’s take a closer look. Congressional investigations need to command clear moral authority. We have not seen that. Even the Joint House hearing on July 12 of FBI agent Peter Strzok made Strzok seem a sympathetic, Ollie North-like figure confronted by a bunch of angry stuffed-suits attacking him for doing his job of saving America from the Russians. Right-wing media thought the hearing was a homerun. Everyone else was scratching their heads.
House and Senate committees investigating Russian interference have insisted on voluntary testimony. Subpoenas have been eschewed. Republicans are pitching softballs in a hardball game. Congress has vitiated its subpoena powers to compel not just testimony from reluctant witnesses but also Fifth Amendment pleas from scoundrels.
The Senate Judiciary Committee inquiry into the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting insisted that all witnesses be interviewed voluntarily. Whoops. What would happen if, under that rule, a crucial witness decided to not testify at all? That’s what happened with Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerKushner investment firm raises more than B: report Trump: Netanyahu 'never wanted peace' with Palestinians Biden celebrates start of Hanukkah MORE, who apparently got “spooked” because ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinLawmakers in both parties to launch new push on Violence Against Women Act Domestic travel vaccine mandate back in spotlight Biden, lawmakers mourn Harry Reid MORE released another witness’s testimony. Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortManafort book set for August publication Accused spy's lawyers say plans to leave country were over Trump, not arrest Countering the ongoing Republican delusion MORE also did not testify. The two highest-ranking campaign officials, both at that meeting, skated. That’s softball. That creates future openings for witness lawyers to press for only voluntary testimony on their own terms.
House committees allowed witnesses to concoct their own privileges to avoid answering certain questions. In January, Steve BannonSteve BannonSteve Bannon's Supreme Court? Biden's new calls to action matter, as does the one yet to come GOP's McCarthy has little incentive to work with Jan. 6 panel MORE was interviewed while his lawyer conversed with White House lawyers about what Bannon could or couldn’t answer. Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski used similar tactics. Both invoked privileges never heard before by a congressional committee. The committee let it go. The precedent has been set.
In January, Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans Grassley and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamKyrsten Sinema's courage, Washington hypocrisy and the politics of rage Hillicon Valley: Amazon's Alabama union fight — take two McConnell will run for another term as leader despite Trump's attacks MORE sent a criminal referral to the Justice Department regarding Christopher Steele, author of the famous Trump “dossier.” I could make a compelling case that their action violated 18 U.S.C. 1513, “Retaliating against a witness, victim, or an informant.” Steele provided U.S. law enforcement officers information that he believed were crimes. At the very least, the referral is a chilling reminder to future whistleblowers that they may not be welcome before that committee.
Imagine the anonymous author of the NYT op-ed, or any of his like-minded brethren, trying to find protection from any committee of Congress. Perhaps that’s why he/she is still anonymous.
Worse, that same committee received testimony from Natalia Veselnitskaya and Donald Trump, Jr. whose veracity is now being questioned, Veselniskaya for claiming she wasn’t a Kremlin agent, and Trump for claiming his father was unaware of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting. Neither received a criminal referral as Steele did. Future witnesses before that committee have a right to be confused about whether their testimony could get them prosecuted.
The worst culprits are House Republicans. They have unabashedly interfered in the on-going special counsel Russia probe and have turned DOJ and the FBI into political witch-hunt central. Think of the impact that would have on future cases if agents and prosecutors constantly second-guess their every move for fear of political retribution from rogue congressmen.
Were Democrats to regain control of Congress, the incoming leaders would need to recognize and assess the oversight damage inflicted by Republicans. A wall should be erected immediately between politics and institutional preservation. They can solicit the help of the Senate and House legal counsels, who maintain the historical institutional knowledge of committee and chamber precedents. They can also work informally with present and past oversight practitioners.
The resulting “autopsy” could be a report to inculcate members and staff. Oversight specialists could augment legal counsel staffs. Leader offices could keep tabs on committee oversight activities to preserve oversight norms, credibility and integrity, and avoid politicization of on-going cases.
Congress also should make DOJ/FBI whole by exterminating all vestiges of Republican political abuse. In my experience, a mere request from Congress of affected agencies for abuse examples will turn up piles of responsive documents, with the most egregious on top.
Finally, the ethics committees need to investigate obstruction by members of Congress and their staffs. At least one head needs to be displayed on a pike for deterrence. The FBI prosecution of former Senate intelligence committee staffer James Wolfe won't deter political influence, but it's the kind of prosecution that should be done to deter it. The ethics committee results should be referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington for obstruction of justice. (A referral to Main Justice would be DOA, as they are too risk-averse.)
These steps would go a long way toward restoring institutional integrity and public confidence in congressional oversight. It all starts with – and cannot be done without – leadership. Republicans have demonstrated they have none. Let’s see if the Democrats get their opportunity. If they squander it, I’ll be on their case, too.
Kris Kolesnik is a 34-year veteran of federal government oversight. He spent 19 years as senior counselor and director of investigations for Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). Kolesnik then became executive director of the National Whistleblower Center. Finally, he spent 10 years working with the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General as the associate inspector general for external affairs.