When divided government spells legislative gridlock, the Congress still has a critical role to play: oversight.
For once, Congress has retaken its rightful place at the center of the American political world. It has been the talk of Washington recently, displacing even the President as the focus of attention. Unfortunately, it has seen a return to the spotlight not due to some revival of traditional constitutional thought, but instead because it has been an utter circus for the past few weeks.
The election of the Speaker of the House – in the modern era, usually a rote exercise which is decided well in advance of the first ballot – took 15 rounds of voting and dragged out over several days. After this unusually-long process, California Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy was finally elected to lead the lower house of Congress. For nearly a week, the floor of the House resounded with cajoling, negotiating, persuading, conspiring, and arguing. In short, it sounded like a legislature should: fractious, cacophonous, lively. But instead of hearing those proper legislative noises during a floor debate on a serious policy topic, we heard it in relation to internal party infighting and procedural moves. Was the extended election a national security issue, as some claimed? No, but it was embarrassing that the House only got its debate on for such a parochial partisan affair.
Still, the fact that Congress sucked up so much media oxygen during the Speaker fight shows that the Article I branch has at least some political cachet remaining. Despite the divided nature of government – the Republicans tenuously hold the House, while the Democrats tenuously hold the Senate and White House – Congress still has an incredibly important non-legislative role to play: that of oversight. Will the Republican-led House of Representatives embrace that critical responsibility, or will they waste their time and political capital on fruitless investigations into Hunter Biden, social media companies, and woke corporations?
There have been some positive signs as to how the 118th Congress will undertake this crucial task of oversight, namely the formation of a select committee on China. That committee, akin to the January 6th Committee of the last Congress, is a special group tasked with investigating a single major issue – in this case, the threat of a rising China. This is an extremely impactful issue, one which will define the geopolitics of the 21st century. As the world hegemon, it is incumbent on us to prepare for threats to our stewardship of the world order; this committee is a great step to getting more focus both inside and outside government onto this paramount challenge. It is being led by Wisconsin GOP Representative Mike Gallagher, an incredibly good choice for the job. Representative Gallagher is serious, hawkish, and clear-eyed on the danger posed by an assertive and expansionist China led by the CCP. One can only hope that this committee will succeed in better understanding the China challenge, promulgating that understanding to other government figures and the public, and strategizing to confront the coming contest.
The House should follow its own lead on the aforementioned select committee and focus its investigative and oversight work on several other areas of interest which would really make a broad impact on politics and policy. Instead of dragging America through a series of ham-fisted attempts at humiliating the President via his criminal son, Congress should try investigating any (or all) of the following:
- The coronavirus pandemic was one of the defining events of the past 50 years of public policy and history. It killed millions across the world, shut down the global economy, and vastly increased State power through emergency public health measures. Not only do we not know the origin of this disastrous plague, the Chinese government has lied, covered up, and obfuscated it since the fall of 2019. Congress has extraordinary powers of compulsion, access to classified materials, and a mandate to investigate issues like this. It should get to the bottom of this virus, its outbreak in China, and its transmission across the world. It should look into China’s role in supply chains and how that impacted the pandemic response, seek answers from our government as to what was known when, and look to understand any role the public health establishment had in China in the pre-pandemic period. We can only prevent another catastrophe of this sort if we understand what caused the first one.
- Besides the origins of the pandemic itself, there are several aspects surrounding the government’s handling of it that should be questioned by Congress. We need to understand what our intelligence agencies knew early in the viral spread, what information was given to which decision makers, and how the decision-making process within the response team worked. We should learn about the details of the public health response, including how different treatments or vaccines were prioritized or approved, why the strategies that were taken were chosen over other viable alternatives, how the CDC was able to agglomerate so much power to dictate broad rules, and what, if any, dissent existed in the medical community. The pandemic also led to the greatest non-war spending binge in American history, with trillions of dollars spent on an enormous variety of programs falling under the banner of ‘Covid relief’. A serious audit of those funds and that spending must be undertaken. Did funds earmarked for certain purposes reach their intended targets? How much fraud was perpetrated, and how was it organized? Did all this spending have a positive or negative effect, especially at the margins? On top of these questions, American parents deserve to know more about the incestuous relationship between teachers’ unions and government, and how that impacted the guidelines around school closings and virtual learning. This would be an excellent topic for a select committee to investigate on a full-time basis.
- The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan was without a doubt one of the most poorly handled and embarrassing American military operations that has occurred in my lifetime. Thirteen American servicemen were killed by terrorists, scenes of bedlam at the Kabul Airport were broadcast globally, and billions of dollars of American military assets fell into enemy hands. The Taliban was able to take over the country almost immediately upon our leaving, despite assurances from the President and others that the Afghan government would hold on for at least another year. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans were left behind, as well as tens of thousands of Afghans who aided our program there. All were and are at serious risk. The Taliban government has predictably been a disaster for human rights, American interests, and the proliferation of terrorism. The House must investigate this debacle, going back to the initial negotiations for withdrawal under the Trump administration. We need to know what advice was given by the military to whom, what intelligence we had regarding the situation, how the withdrawal was planned and executed, and why we had no plan to exfiltrate American citizens and allies.
Immigration and the Border
- In case you didn’t notice, illegal immigration is at record highs during the Biden administration, with millions of illicit crossings happening each year. According to US Customs and Border Protection, encounters with illegal migrants have surged each year since 2020, hitting a high of 2.3 million in FY2022. Keep in mind that these are only the migrants who were apprehended, not all those who have crossed – many have made it without direct encounters with law enforcement. Border cities and states have been inundated with these migrants, straining resources far past the breaking point. And the policy approach and rhetoric of the Biden team has only made the problem worse – a fact well-understood by the migrants who see such soft policies as an invitation to make the treacherous journey northwards. There have been several controversies surrounding the Biden administration’s handling of the border crisis, and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas should be called to the carpet to answer hard questions on the subject.
One would hope that the House, after such an intense Speaker fight, would be itching to get to down to serious business. Hope, however, is a dangerous thing with respect to the current state of the federal legislature. Congress constantly fails in its most basic responsibilities of legislation and oversight, but perhaps if the issue of passing laws is a moot one – due to the divided Congress – it will have more energy for investigations. The key, however, is spending time on the right things, not those that will ‘own the libs’. Will the House step up and move further in the mold of Rep. Gallagher’s China committee? Or will it descend into myriad hearings about Hunter Biden and meaningless internet gossip? Only time will tell. Check back with me in January 2025.