One journalist’s vote for divided government

November 5, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama departs after delivering remarks on student loans at the White House in Washington

Count the Washington press corps as unintended beneficiaries of last night’s slaughter of the Democrats by the Republicans. Now, with the Republicans taking of the Senate in addition to the House, leaving them in control of all congressional committees, we can expect up to twice as many Capitol Hill investigations into alleged fraud, abuse, waste, and perfidy by the Obama administration. Witnesses called! Testimony given! Evidence subpoenaed! Executive privilege claimed! 

The news stories will almost write themselves.

The political use of congressional committees date back to George Washington’s presidency, when a select committee investigated military defeats in the Indian Wars, but as David C.W. Parker and Matthew Dull write in a recent academic study, the up-tick in partisan congressional investigations has been made possible the reassertion of congressional oversight powers and the expansion of the media. But historically, partisan congressional investigations are most common in periods of divided government, Parker and Dull conclude, when no party controls both houses and the White House, like today.

The Republicans have been on an “investigative” tear since they took control of the House and its committees following the November 2010 elections, conducting inquiries of uneven quality into Benghazi, the troubles at Veterans Affairs hospitals, Internal Revenue Service “targeting,” “Fast and Furious,” the Solyndra crack-up, and other federal ruckuses. None of these investigations are bogus, but all of them carry the Republican scent of demagoguery with them.

The Democrats, accomplished perfumers in their own right, aren’t above this sort political theater. Another recent study about divided government and congressional investigations points to the 2006 midterm elections, after which the Democrats took the House and the Senate and commenced their own investigative rampage. “This is just the beginning,” then-Representative Rahm Emanuel’s told the Washington Post. “What a difference a year makes.”

Partisan investigations, to pinch the phrase, are politics by other means. A party that fails to triumph at the polls but still hopes to exert political influence can use investigations to diminish the reputations and the authority of agencies or departments it hopes to throttle but could never do so directly, Parker and Dull note. A variety of politicians, including Harry Truman, Estes Kefauver, Howard Baker, and John Kerry, have relied on congressional investigations to raise their profiles and increase their national political options. A robust partisan investigation is useful because it can also inspire a party’s political base, and give candidates resonant talking points during elections, as Republicans demonstrated this year.

“They’re fabricated issues,” a near helpless President Barack Obama said about the dirt Washington foes had tagged him and his party with. “They’re phony scandals that are generated. It’s all geared towards the next election, or ginning up the base.”

And he may have a point, as have all of his predecessors in the office. As both academic studies cited here present data to show that congressional investigations increase in times of divided government, it suggests that 1) in times of divided government, congressional committees hype with the tools of political theater whatever scandals they come across, and 2) in times of united government, the same committees discourage investigations lest they offend or weaken their president.

Which brings us back to the press. Whatever biases to which my fellow journalists subscribe, they are all inwardly celebrating last night’s returns. The press feeds off congressional investigations the way a leech does its host’s blood. The more bellicose the investigation the better, the better copy: Nothing surpasses a grandstanding member of Congress for raw material. Congressional investigations also turn the reportorial soil, invariably (and sometimes unintentionally) unearthing useful evidence and testimony that journalists can use. Presidents who call upon their lawyers to repel congressional investigations end up generating legal proceedings that nourish and inspire an endless series of stories.

Think of the GOP’s Senate takeover as a full-employment act for Washington reporters. Profiles of the new committee chairs have already been assigned to chart the flow of power from Senate Democrats to Senate Republicans, and reporters who once set their watches by the time kept by Senate Democrats will have to adjust to Republican time. Inside Capitol Hill offices, Republicans are plotting new investigations and reformulating old ones for your future entertainment on cable TV. Inside other offices, Democrats are dreaming of a brighter 2016 when they can say, “This is just the beginning…what a difference a couple of years make.”


What do I get out of looming partisan investigations? This column. Send your best shot to See my Twitter feed for nonpartisan investigations. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.


PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama departs after delivering remarks on student loans at the White House in Washington June 21, 2012. A congressional panel voted on Wednesday to charge Attorney General Eric Holder with contempt of Congress after the Obama administration invoked executive privilege for the first time since coming to office, withholding some documents related to a failed gun-running investigation. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


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These investigations are excellent ways of gaining publicity for congressional committee members. They are especially necessary when practically no new legislation is forthcoming from a divided congress. So this will provide news items for the next two years until the next election.

Sorry state of affairs.

Posted by loyalsys | Report as abusive

Well, you are certainly entitled to your viewpoint. I on the other hand believe the Republicans are going to get down to business to solidify their hold on the Congress through the 2016 election.

Posted by norcalguy101 | Report as abusive


What if they had a circle jerk and nobody came?




Posted by mschlee | Report as abusive

None the less, the IRS seems to have engaged in the systematic destruction of evidence. They refuse to answer truthfully to a fair court, presided over by a non-political judge. That’s a crime, and they need to be held accountable.

Benghazi is the latest in a long series of operational failures by the State Department, which is ignoring its own published standards and blocking audits on compliance. It reflects a contempt for accountability that has been enabled by several of its executives.

Fast and Furious is yet another of a long series of very botched operations by what are now divisions of Homeland Security, who have exhibited complete contempt for the rule of law. They have been caught at it before, they seem to regard themselves as above the law.

The NSA has pursued a reckless expansion of its technical abilities, that it spectacularly mismanaged, lied to the Congress and the country about, severely damaged relationships with important allies, and as above, refuses to be accountable.

This administration elected to hide and deny, rather than explore and fix these failures. What Bush, or Clinton, or Washington did is irrelevant, and is no excuse for any administration to use to hide its failings. Obama billed himself as a reformer, and then pursued a vigorous agenda of status quo for government abuse of power. He needs to answer for that.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

BO still thinks everyone else is wrong and HE has it right.
None of the scandals are phony and, short of all the stonewalling, would be done by now. Transparency to this clown is only a marketing tool getting yanked away at the first question.
His proposed immigration threat guarantees that the spotlight will continue to be aimed at the BLESSED ONE. It delays his irrelevancy for the time being.

Posted by gitmojo | Report as abusive

” .. we can expect up to twice as many Capitol Hill investigations into alleged fraud, abuse, waste, and perfidy by the Obama administration ..”

These investigations amount to fraud and abuse in itself by veering the current focus away from the real abusers – banks, investment firms, medical, defense-contract agencies, insurance and the like.

If this new group is interested in real reform, see if they focus on – border security, illegals and the like.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive

Have any of these “investigations” led to improvements in the quality of our government?

For example, is the Department of Veterans Affairs still the epitome of lamebrained bureaucracy and outright fraud after many years of “investigation” by Congress? Are our soldiers still being denied treatment for months and years, if ever? Is Veterans Affairs still using paper instead of even 20-year-old computer technolgy? The answer to all is: Yup!

Maybe some of those billions of dollars being allocated to the NSA to NOT spy on Americans (heh! heh!) could be used to help our soldiers…

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive