How Hill Investigations Might Unfold

By Sandy K. Johnson

When Democrats take control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2019, there will be a burst of new congressional investigations.

Three experts offered their guidance to reporters trying to navigate what’s important in the oversight process: Andrew Wright, senior fellow and founding editor of Just Security; Justin Rood, director of the Congressional Oversight Initiative at the Project on Government Oversight; and Austin Evers, founder of American Oversight.

Ground zero for many of the House investigations will be the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which in 2019 will be chaired by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland.  In addition to oversight of the Trump administration, Cummings has indicated his interest in investigating rising pharmaceutical drug prices and voter suppression.

Evers’ nonprofit is deep into document surfacing. Since 2017, American Oversight has filed 2,000 Freedom of Information Act requests and 80 lawsuits. He noted that oversight impacts people well beyond the president or agency heads. He suggested, for example, that Congress would not first question Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security secretary, about the border refugee crisis. Instead, he said Congress would bring in regional officials to chip away at how decisions were made. “Think Katrina. Think Iraq. What’s the next Halliburton?” he said.

Wright said another tool congressional investigators have at their disposal is third-party discovery. Investigators will mine a treasure trove of information held by private entities, such as banks, accounting firms and corporations. They will also find information in state business filings and in internet and phone records. “All have highly relevant information to big ticket investigations,” Wright said. And almost none of those have the legal means to resist congressional subpoenas.

Rood, a former journalist, encouraged reporters to look beyond the blockbuster investigations. Journalists can break out of pack coverage by focusing instead on agencies and programs that are in crisis. Examples include congressional misdeeds (Congress isn’t likely to do that, after all) and Federal Emergency Management Agency decisions and spending on recent hurricanes and storms.

Rood also cautioned journalists about fishing expeditions, calling them unworthy of media time or attention.

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