One journalist’s vote for divided government
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 Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. 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