Earlier this week, Vox’s Sean Illing asked 10 law professors whether President Trump's sweeping refusal to cooperate with congressional investigators has plunged the nation into “a constitutional crisis.” I recommend the article, and I also observe that I’m 100% on Congress’s side regarding the legitimacy of its information queries. Indeed, I’m with my colleague Gene Healy, who has rightfully Tweeted that, “#ExecutivePrivilege is something judges just made up out of penumbras and emanations of Article II.”
For this post, however, I argue that congressional oversight, per se, is in its own state of “constitutional crisis” wholly independent from Trump. Specifically, I will make two claims. First, I explain why congressional oversight always has been sub-optimal. Then, I explain why contemporary oversight is acutely awful.
Even decades ago, when Members of Congress were policy savants relative to now, congressional oversight was known as the body’s “neglected duty.” In a famous 1984 article, Professors Mathew McCubbins and Thomas Schwartz lent a conceptual framework to explain this inadequacy. Their core insight was to identify two types of congressional behavior regarding oversight. The first was the “police patrol,” which describes ongoing monitoring of the law’s execution. The second type was “fire alarm” oversight, by which the professors meant that lawmakers snap to attention only when hot-button issues become sufficiently politicized.
Quite obviously, the “police patrol” method is superior because, if it is done faithfully, then such supervision could head off the crises that lead to “fire alarms.” Nevertheless, the “fire alarm” approach takes less work, and it reaps more political currency in the form of attention. Due to these incentives, Congress has underinvested in oversight for as long as legislators have delegated power to execute the law.
In this manner, oversight was shortchanged in Congress during the first three quarters of the Twentieth Century. Back then, however, a decentralized power structure within the legislature provided a counter-incentive for the use of preferable “police patrol” techniques. As I explained in a prior post, Members of that period cared about policy because policy chops were necessary to succeed in Congress. At that time, committees and subcommittees competed with the president to manage administrative agencies, and, as with life generally, competitors do their homework.
Starting in the 1980s, however, power in Congress shifted from committees to party leadership. Many factors were at play in causing this change. Crucially, congressional leaders, such as Reps. Tip O’Neil and Newt Gingrich, altered the rules to facilitate centralization. The modernization of mass media played another important role, in that it allowed to party leadership to push a national message. Finally, recurrent impasses with the president over spending and budgets—known as the “fiscalization” of politics—facilitated the centralization of power by creating the necessity for high-level negotiations, which, naturally, would be conducted by congressional leaders and thereby enhanced their power accordingly.
Due to this shift, partisan affinity now trumps institutional prerogative, such that one party loses interest in oversight whenever “their guy” occupies the White House. Also due to the shift to centralized power, Members of Congress know less about policy-making because there’s little incentive to have such knowledge. Each of these factors works to undermine the occasion and performance of “police patrol” superintendence of the administrative state.
Yet the current contretemps between Congress and the Trump administration reveals that the legislature’s oversight function has withered further, such that “fire alarm” investigations, too, are falling by the wayside. To be precise, they’ve altered from an inferior form of oversight (relative to “police patrols”) to a worthless form.
Historically, “fire alarm” oversight pertained to catastrophes or governing scandals. In either case, the investigatory lodestar was reform. That is, congressional investigations traditionally sought to discern how something bad happened, and then how to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Even investigations that don’t easily fit this usual framework—such as Watergate—shared a nexus with governmental reform. Nixon’s excesses inspired institutional responses, including the 1974 Budget and Impoundment Control Act and the 1977 Legislative Reorganization Act.
As I survey the current landscape of fire-alarm investigations, I see a qualitatively different application in the present day. When it comes to resource allocation for oversight, I can think of any number of “fire alarms” to sound, including:
- The reported possibility of war (!!) with Iran;
- The president’s declaration every other day of a fake “national emergency” to get what he wants without Congress getting in the way; and,
- The EPA sneaking a major New Source Review regulation into the (unrelated) revision of an Obama-era climate rule.
Despite these—and many more—worthy targets for serious congressional oversight by opponents of the Trump administration, House leadership is pouring resources into getting Trump’s tax returns and relitigating the Mueller Report. I find Trump as off-putting and dangerous as anyone, but these strike me as the silliest possible subjects for oversight.
On the one hand, I think these investigations don’t inform anyone. Who doesn’t think Trump would fire subordinates—and then Tweet about it—to head off an investigation? And who doesn’t think Trump exaggerates his wealth all the time? Notwithstanding these qualities, which are baked into Trump’s brand, the American people elected him president, alas. The upshot is that I’m not convinced that these investigations bring much new to the table.
More importantly, I fail to see any prospect for reform. Neither of these investigations bears any relationship to a specific policy outcome. It’s all about Trump, the man, and none about Trump, the policymaker. Nor am I sanguine about the prospect that these investigations ultimately could inspire institutional reforms the way that Watergate did. Well into the third year of this presidency, I have not once seen the democrats reach out to Never-Trumpers to explore curbing the power of the office. Instead, the majority in the House seems to want only to damage Trump politically, and otherwise maintain the president’s power for when their party takes control.
In sum, I wholeheartedly support Congress’s right to information from President Trump, but I also bemoan its present use of that right.