April 07, 2020

Congressional oversight: a murder-suicide

Twenty-five years ago, when the new president, Ronald Reagan, wanted to know if he could get a bill through the Senate, his Chief of Staff James Baker said, “Before we do anything we pick up the phone and get Howard Baker’s judgment on what will or won’t fly.”

That story of respect for the former Republican Senate majority leader from Tennessee, described in Lewis L. Gould’s book “The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate,” came back to me this week while reading yet another lament that Congress has surrendered its oversight role. The anecdote shows how the White House once conferred with Congress – and was sometimes told no.

In an election year when voters seem fed up with Congress, as they wonder how the nation will pay its Medicare bills or get out of a war without causing more chaos, death and grief, one solution is more of what voters find repugnant – Congress itself, and a more vigorous one at that.

Vigorous, as in the Truman Commission, which found waste in Roosevelt’s military programs and kept investigating even after Pearl Harbor. Or vigorous like the committee led by Sen. Frank Church, which investigated the intelligence-gathering practices of the CIA and FBI after Watergate.

Many observers have commented that Congress has largely avoided oversight of executive-branch activities, but the interesting question is why. A common assumption is that it’s the fault of a high-pressure White House. Partly, that’s true – the White House has been secretive with information on everything from who attended Dick Cheney’s energy summit to the presence of its wiretapping program. And it has tried to punish members of Congress who have doubted its edicts (see Murtha, Rep. John). But what has occurred since 2001 is not just murder but suicide.

Howard Baker knew how to get along with the Reagan administration and he knew how to run the Senate, but he didn’t seem to confuse the two even as he eagerly helped Reagan carry out his agenda. Looking back on his time in Washington, Baker offered a set of rules for future leaders. His top three were to understand the limits of the office; respect opposing points of view – remember that no senator “was sent here to march in lockstep with his or her colleagues and none will”; and “consult as often as possible with as many senators as possible, on as many issues as possible.”

“Work with the president,” doesn’t show up until Rule 8, and even then it says “with” and not “for.”

The retiring majority leader, Bill Frist, doesn’t understand this, say scholars Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann in the latest Foreign Affairs. Since, 2000, they say, “congressional oversight of the executive branch across a range of policies, but especially on foreign and national security policy, has virtually collapsed.”

They cite, for instance, the failure of Congress to thoroughly examine the administration’s lack of plans for post-Saddam Iraq, the $1.6 billion in cost overruns at the U.S. Agency for International Development and the inexplicable absence of adequate body armor for troops in Iraq. They note the interminable delays in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on prewar intelligence failures, though they did give Republicans Olympia Snowe and Chuck Hagel credit for forcing the committee to produce a partial report last month. And they compare the current domination by Republicans with the last time Demo-crats were in that position, in 1993-94. Then the House Government Reform Committee held 135 oversight hearings; in ’03-’04, it held 37.

This near-collapse has occurred in both houses of Congress, but it is especially noticeable in the Senate, whose members more often have held the values of the institution over political expediency.

Political adviser Dick Morris wrote recently that Frist, “performed about as well as a heart surgeon with mittens on. He failed utterly to provide the leadership necessary and managed to so mangle the reputation of the legislative wing of the Republican Party in the process that it may take several elections, and perhaps a Hillary Clinton presidency, to recover.”

When the leader fails to defend the power of the Senate, its members, as independent as they are, are subject to a simple but effective divide-and-conquer strategy that keeps any individual senator from looking too closely at White House activities. The Republican exceptions to this, Ornstein and Mann write, are John McCain, Susan Collins, Lindsey Graham and Chuck Grassley – “but they seldom had the support of their party’s leadership or their colleagues.”

The authors’ solutions include reversing the current trend of Congress to spend fewer and fewer days in session – there are only half as many committee and subcommittee meetings now compared with the 1980s and ’90s. They want earmark reform too, so that appropriations committees can review spending proposals. Broadly, they point out that a fairer form of House redistricting would produce more competitive races and more responsive members of Congress.

For the Senate, I’d add that the next majority leader should review Baker’s top three rules to restore some of that body’s authority.

Todd Benoit is the editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News.

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