Newly empowered House Dems eyeing Trump need to learn from Gingrich debacle

The Democrats now control the House, and the new team likely has an overflowing reservoir of pent-up energy and frustration, enough to launch an oversight blitzkrieg at the Trump administration and family. I have a warning: If Democrats don’t think this through carefully, their hopes for a big bang will end in a fizzle.

I was part of a similar effort. Republicans emerged after 40 years in the wilderness in 1996 and took over the House. Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole joined forces to create a small group of experienced oversight staff, myself included. We taught incoming staff how to conduct oversight of the Clinton administration. I had a front row seat at the revolution.

Though well-intentioned, the result was an oversight abomination, a litany of slap-stick hearings and investigations, mostly by the House, that made you at once laugh and cry. They had been forewarned about the dos and don’ts of proper oversight. The advice was ignored. I took away myriad anecdotes and lessons from that horror show, and never disclosed them publicly.{mosads}

The Gingrich plan was designed to weaponize congressional oversight to check Clinton. Fair enough, as long as it was credible, not blatantly political. Under Gingrich, it was all political.

The mission of oversight should be detecting and then fixing executive branch failures. Not every failure is caused by a weasel political appointee. Often there’s a bureaucratic, cultural reason of which appointees are oblivious.

Or, sometimes bad things are done simply because of personal motives.

To use a present-day example, Republicans charged that FBI deep-staters supported Hillary Clinton and undermined Trump, during the 2016 campaign, because they were Democrats. The DOJ Inspector General disagreed. In the case of former acting director Andrew McCabe, his leak to a reporter was for personal reasons – to save his credibility, which was being questioned by the press.

The moral of that story is, sometimes in real life, just maybe motives reflect issues other than politics.

The investigator’s job is not just to find out what happened, but why. That’s where you begin to separate politics from credibility. “Why” tells you about the culture of an organization and thus the origins of the problem. Only then can you assign accountability.

That’s wasn’t Gingrich’s model. His approach had two fatal flaws.

First, everything had a pre-meditated political angle. Whatever problems were discovered, the cause had to be the Democrats’ failing, corrupt agenda.

He told oversight staff to divide their work into three buckets: Wasteful Washington Spending; Ethical Lapses; and, Union Corruption. Following this plan would help execute his vision of how to attack Clinton and the Democrats. I recall him saying: “I wish you could be in my head to see it.” His goal was a permanent House majority for Republicans.

His second flaw was employing a top-down, command and control system for oversight. He knew better. He was schooled by my mentor, the late Col. John Boyd, in the need to avoid top-down command and control. You can’t deal with reality through top-down commands. Reality will devour you. 

Committees that rebelled became Gingrich’s targets. In the middle of a meeting, if a committee balked at a Gingrich directive, he’d threaten to reassign the culprit. Or he’d tell John Boehner (then the House Conference chair) to call Rush Limbaugh and tell him what was going on. Early vestige of the Trump-calling-Hannity strategy?

With that approach, no wonder Gingrich’s leadership produced an oversight dud.

Two quick examples.

First – one of my roles was to be a sounding board and advisor for oversight hearings. One day, a committee staff director called me and said his committee was holding a hearing the following week. I asked what the issue was, did they have sufficient evidence, and did they have a victim (my signature ingredient)?

The answer was: the issue is government workers lobbying Congress; they had documents; and the victim was a lobbyist (he called him a “trade association official”). They wanted the lobbyist to wear a hood and to disguise his voice to protect him (I kid you not!). The staff director wanted to know what I thought.

Without even looking at the evidence, I told him no one’s heart will bleed for a lobbyist.

I asked him how long he thought it would take before a reporter unmasked the lobbyists’ identity? It could be embarrassing for his boss.

He hung up.

I went to the hearing to see if they would actually do it. They did. 

The lobbyist and all the Republicans were mocked non-stop. Within 24 hours, the AP ran a crushing story exposing the witness’s identity and the absurdity of the hearing.

Second – a scandal broke out about campaign finance irregularities between alleged Chinese donors and Democrats. A meeting was assembled to determine how to investigate. After listening to the discussion and having seen enough of the Gingrich model, I argued to let the press sort it out. It was such a morass, it was the kind of investigation that called for an independent counsel, not a House committee of dubious distinction. 

The investigation went forward (I was losing all these battles!) Their genius strategy was throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what stuck.

Two years, 600 subpoenas and millions of dollars later, the results: confusion, partisan bickering, an apology from the chairman for a major embarrassment, and a key staffer fired.

These anecdotes are relevant to today.

The sequel to the 1990s horror show premiered last year, with a star-studded cast of bumbling Republican “oversight gurus” who can’t shoot straight. The movie is still playing. I hope you haven’t missed their amazing exploits and miscues during their Russia probes.

They are mindless capers and crass political stunts by Senate and House chairmen and non-chairmen, eschewing credibility to carpet-bomb congressional oversight norms in defense of the president. Credibility is a xenophobic concept to them. When you say apple, they’ll say orange.

The integrity of Congress’s institutional oversight function is in tatters.

I have offered solutions to help repair the damage. I offer these insights not to help Democrats or hurt Republicans. My goal is to help restore integrity to the process, and the public’s confidence in it.

The Gingrich plan is alive and well among Republicans who never learned. I hope the new team will restore the norms.

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.

Tags Andrew McCabe Boehner Charles Grassley Congressional oversight Donald Trump Hillary Clinton John Boehner Newt Gingrich Politics of the United States Presidency of Bill Clinton

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