American Prospect: Investigating Oversight

May 27, 2021 Media

In April, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, formed to scrutinize policy decisions made during the pandemic, held a hearing that will not go down in the annals of congressional history. “When do Americans get their freedom back?” squawked pugnacious Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) at Dr. Anthony Fauci, seeking a certain date for an end to mask-wearing and social distancing. Told that it would depend on the level of cases, hospitalizations, and vaccinations, Jordan repeated the question, decrying measures that he considered an assault on constitutional rights. As his time expired, Jordan didn’t stop. The next speaker began, but Jordan talked over her. “You need to respect the chair, and shut your mouth,” bellowed Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA).

Nobody would call it a useful five minutes of anyone’s life. But it’s what Americans have come to expect from hearings in their Congress, which have too often served as an extension of cable news shout-fests. Indeed, in an era where attention and attention alone matters, the angry exchange, unlike nearly all congressional hearings, drew news coverage.

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Grandstanding has its place in Washington, of course. But the deeper question is what the point of the hearing was at all. This is a select subcommittee with subpoena power, charged with gathering information on the federal pandemic response. Members had Fauci, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky, and Dr. David Kessler, chief science officer for the coronavirus response, in front of them. It was an opportunity to drill down into the technicalities of the vaccine rollout and virus mitigation, and decipher what could be improved.

But over the three-hour hearing, Democrats on the panel by and large praised President Biden’s response relative to Donald Trump, while Republicans mostly highlighted crowded immigration facilities that are failing to follow social-distancing guidelines. Several members gave five-minute speeches without asking a question. There were multiple exchanges about whether Tucker Carlson should retract statements made on his Fox News show.

In a sense, the hearing was unique, because at least the immigration facilities debate was based on one daylong trip by some Republicans to the southern border. Congress doing its own investigating on anything is novel these days. A combination of understaffing, stretched responsibilities, lack of coordination, and a pervasive inattention to the importance of oversight has crippled a core function of the legislative branch. Beyond that, few members have a coherent philosophy about the purpose of congressional hearings and oversight, so much so that when one of them offers a respectable response, it’s bracing.

“My favorite story of Patman, the Federal Reserve wouldn’t give him information,” said Matt Stoller, who wrote extensively about Patman in his 2019 book Goliath. “The Fed said, ‘We’re not part of the government, we don’t have to give you information.’ Patman said, ‘Oh, you’re not part of the government,’ so he went to the D.C. government and said that these Fed buildings aren’t part of the government, and they haven’t paid property taxes.”

It’s telling that Porter’s use of a whiteboard was seen as highly controversial among older members, as if trying to break down complex subjects for the public is a bridge too far. The tension led to Porter’s departure from the Financial Services Committee, where she had much of her career expertise before Congress. The whole episode gave the impression that it’s risky and unconventional to actually conduct oversight and ask questions. “They think she’s good because she’s good at theater,” said Matt Stoller, who worked for former Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in Congress. “But she’s actually good because she’s interested in the details.”

Another freshman, Sen. Jon Ossoff, has taken the chair of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. He’s easing into the role; there’s been no public statement from the subcommittee since last December. But he does have the right profile: Ossoff was an investigative journalist before reaching the Senate. “Good hearings are really just journalism with subpoena power,” Matt Stoller said. “It’s a show, it’s a performance where you find information and confront people. It’s not rocket science but it does take work.”