Republicans’ Antics Are Debasing Congress

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If you support a strong, effective Congress, the hearing Thursday on the Hillary Clinton email investigation was deeply depressing.

To summarize: Congressional Republicans pressed FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok for explanations of his actions during the Clinton investigation and in Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia and the Trump campaign. The lawmakers focused on text messages Strzok wrote in 2016 that derided then-candidate Donald Trump. In several instances, Strzok refused to answer on the grounds that the FBI had not authorized him to disclose information from ongoing investigations. Republicans then threatened to hold him in contempt.

Yes, we want Congress to perform its oversight role, including when it comes to the Federal Bureau of Investigations. As the law professor Josh Chafetz says, “the answer cannot be to say that the FBI gets to decide unilaterally what questions it will and won't answer from Congress.” And the hearings can’t be dismissed as invalid, as some Democrats did, on the grounds that the Justice Department inspector general had cleared Strzok of having improperly influenced these investigations; Congress doesn’t have to take the inspector general’s word for anything.  

A certain amount of grandstanding, even when it’s over the top, is an acceptable price to pay for creating incentives for congressional committee chairs to take their oversight responsibilities seriously. We want Congress to monitor executive branch departments and agencies, and to call them out when they misbehave. So we should accept that publicity can be a reward for lawmakers who take on the job,  even it’s sometimes necessary for hearings and investigations to lean toward more tawdry or explosive stories to get attention. 

But what Representative House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy and House Judicial Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte did in the the hearing Thursday looks flat-out irresponsible. The Republican lawmakers seemed to be playing games with classified and otherwise non-public information to make the FBI look as if it is refusing reasonable congressional requests. Their bigger goal appeared to be the disruption of the Mueller investigation — or at least, constructing a counter-narrative for (and with) Republican-aligned media. House Republicans stopped benefiting from the presumption that they were acting in good faith long ago (see the never-ending Benghazi investigation or the phony controversy of the Nunes memo). Instead, they’re simply using oversight to fan the flames of implausible and illogical conspiracy theories.

Unfortunately, there is no solution to the problem of panel chairs acting irresponsibly when they have the full support of their party. Normally, the constraint on over-the-top grandstanding is that the party collectively cares about its reputation and won’t support such behavior. If a chair is acting up, the leadership might ask her to tone it down, or even in extreme cases threaten to replace her.

That doesn’t work with today’s Republican majority, which has convinced itself there is no such thing as neutral media or other nonpartisan institutions and only cares about party-aligned media such as Fox News or the Rush Limbaugh show.  And that’s part of what makes the Republicans so dysfunctional. Their incentive is to please their strongest supporters, and so the normal constraints built into the system don’t operate to push against irresponsible actions. 

Chafetz suggests the cure is at the ballot box.

It doesn’t always work that way. Although it appears more likely than not that Republicans will lose their House majority in November, it won’t be because voters are reacting to oversight abuses. They generally don’t make their choices based on single policy issues, let alone process questions. Republicans are mainly going to suffer for Trump’s unpopularity and for the structural reasons the president’s party normally loses in midterms, not for their own behavior.

At the very least, we might hope that a House majority that regularly engages in such abuse might hurt its overall reputation powerfully enough that the misdeeds become a factor in midterm elections. But even that seems unlikely; approval or disapproval of the president is likely to be a far more important factor in vote choice. 

Bottom line? The Republican Party is deeply dysfunctional and suffers minimal or no electoral penalties as a result. And there doesn’t seem to be any obvious solution to get the party back on track as a group of responsible and effective conservatives. In the meantime, we should do what we can to protect our other governing institutions when necessary. But as long as the Republicans act irresponsibly, the rest of us will constantly be pushed into impossible choices between empowering them and (if possible) limiting their damage by crippling the institutions they control. As I said: It’s deeply depressing.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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