Congress Must Exercise Oversight of Trump Administration

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Donald Trump, who is perhaps not truly the “most transparent” president in history, has declared that his administration will contest all subpoenas from Congress. This is a problem, because when Congress subpoenas documents or testimony from the White House, it does so in performance of its duty to oversee the executive branch.

President Trump argues that Democrats controlling the House of Representatives are overreaching, searching for problems in the White House where none exist. Of course, any president might suspect Congress of investigating with too much zeal, and the correct balance isn’t always easy to judge.

Yet oversight is a constitutional duty that cannot be categorically denied. And there is ample reason to think this particular White House requires scrutiny — not least, the recent report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller outlining Trump’s efforts to thwart the investigation into Russian sabotage of the 2016 election.

So how can Congress conduct its essential investigations without being stymied by obstruction? It’s going to require something rare and precious in Washington: bipartisan compromise. Both parties need to acknowledge and stand up for the importance of overseeing this president — and all future White House occupants.

Trump’s recent refusal to cooperate has been startlingly thorough. His lawyers have sued to block release of his personal financial records to the House Oversight Committee. The Treasury Department has defied a deadline to turn over his tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee. And this week Trump and his family sued his own banks to stop them turning over financial information to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Financial Services Committee.

The White House has further indicated it will not allow former White House counsel Donald McGahn to testify before the House Judiciary Committee about presidential efforts to derail the Russia investigation, as outlined in Mueller’s report. And Attorney General William Barr has hesitated to testify before the House Judiciary Committee about his curious declaration — now known to have been questioned by Mueller himself — that Trump was cleared of possible obstruction of justice.

Unfortunately, Congress has limited capacity to enforce its own subpoenas. And the Constitution is unspecific about how its prerogatives should be honored by other branches of government. Although the Supreme Court has ruled that Congress’s power of inquiry is essential to the “legislative function,” courts are often loath to step into the breach, and they are under no obligation to do so.

Congress has some indirect leverage: It can withhold, or threaten to withhold, funds from uncooperative departments. It can block key elements of a president’s agenda. And it can impeach. But all of these responses, in the current political environment, are easily cast as partisan. If the president digs in his heels, and his party supports him, Congress would be no closer to getting what it wants.

What’s needed instead is a bipartisan effort to negotiate with the White House for reasonable access to records and people.

Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee, showed the way last week. Jordan, who has a reputation as a relentless partisan, may be an unlikely peacemaker. Yet he stepped in to resolve a standoff between Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee chairman, and the White House over a subpoena that Cummings had issued to Carl Kline, a former White House staffer in charge of security clearances. The president had directed Kline not to appear before the committee, which sought his testimony about a whistleblower’s claims of inappropriate White House procedures. When Jordan argued that Kline should testify, the White House relented on condition that Cummings allow White House lawyers to be present. Both sides gave a little, and now Kline is scheduled to appear before Cummings’s committee today.

This is the best model for resolving such disputes. Despite the lack of constitutional clarity, and a power balance between the executive and legislative branches that is forever in flux, Congress has a vital responsibility to oversee the presidency. No matter which party holds the White House, Democrats and Republicans must cooperate to ensure that Congress is able to do its job.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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