In the aftermath of the election, Democrats went into finger-pointing mode. While the party succeeded in ousting Donald Trump from the White House, its performance in down-ballot races was disappointing.
Contrary to the predictions of the pundits and the pollsters, the Democrats not only failed to take back the Senate but just barely hung onto the House, where they lost seats. The Republicans also gained ground at the statehouse level, where at least two state legislative chambers flipped to the GOP. Centrists blame progressives’ allegedly extremist views for the party’s lackluster showing while Democrats ranging from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Sen. Doug Jones fault the party’s underinvestment in party institutions.
But there’s a more direct and compelling explanation for the party’s underperformance, albeit one that has received less attention: The Democrats’ passive, excessively risk-averse style of governing. Nowhere was that passivity more evident than in the congressional Democrats’ failures on oversight.
In 2018, the Democrats won control of the House by promising they would rein in Trump, a message popular with voters. But over the last two years, Nancy Pelosi’s House failed to make good; the oversight that did occur was often too little too late. The Democrats were slow in requesting Trump’s taxes and in responding to the crisis caused by delays in mail delivery by the Postal Service. They impeached Trump on the narrowest grounds possible and failed to open impeachment inquiries on Trump cronies like Attorney General Bill Barr, in spite of clear evidence he was abusing his office to serve the political interests of the president.
The Democrats’ weak oversight was bad policy. Oversight can bring critical information to light, uncover corruption and incompetence, and build the case for systemic reform. It is an indispensable tool in helping the machinery of government run more equitably and efficiently.
What is perhaps less well understood is that the Democrats’ lethargic oversight was bad politics. Well-executed oversight can generate a constant stream of negative media stories for your political opponents and put them on the defensive. This is one reason, if the Republicans hold onto the Senate, we’re likely to be treated to multiple investigations into Hunter Biden and his laptops.
On a deeper level, substantive oversight of issues that polls repeatedly show voters care about (antitrust, Big Tech monopolies, Wall Street regulation, Big Pharma, revolving door lobbying etc.) that connects Americans’ bread-and-butter material interests can educate Americans about what government can do for ordinary people. That kind of oversight could give Democrats something positive to run on, instead of just being less bad than the other guy.
As the election results showed, anti-Trumpism was not convincing enough in itself for voters who were not already on board with the Democrats. But vigorous, well-targeted oversight has the potential to help restore cynical voters’ faith in the power of good government — and the Democrats’ ability to bring it about.
The contrasting fates of two members of the House Democrats’ freshman class of 2018 are a case in point. Reps. Donna Shalala and Katie Porter each represent swing congressional districts, Shalala in Miami-Dade County, Florida, and Porter in Orange County, California. Shalala was tapped by Pelosi to serve on the commission overseeing the CARES Act bailout. She could have her position as a platform to uncover corruption, promote accountability, and make the case for her own second term by fighting for the interests of her constituents. Instead, her tenure was marred by controversies over her financial conflicts of interest and her inability to provide energetic, effective leadership. Her oversight failures are not the only reason she lost her bid for re-election, but they played a role.
Porter, by contrast, not only was re-elected but widened her margin of victory. Unlike Shalala, she made the most of her opportunities for oversight, wielding her famous white board and interrogating slippery CEOs and government officials with bulldog-like intensity. Her questioning in one hearing caused the head of the CDC to commit to free COVID testing. In another hearing, she famously asked JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon how a bank teller could live on a minimum wage. Afterward, she heard from constituents who told her, “‘I’m not a Democrat … but that’s my story. I was that single mom. I work at a bank today, and I can’t make ends meet.’”
The GOP is a minority party that has lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections. Nevertheless, it continues to dominate American politics. That is because Republicans play the game aggressively, rarely backing down from a fight and using every political tool at their disposal — including the congressional oversight tools such as the power to hold hearings and investigations.
The Democrats would be well-advised to wield power with a similar vigor and confidence. If the party continues to govern from a defensive crouch, it risks failing not only the American people but democracy itself.
Kathleen Geier writes for the Center for Economic & Policy Research (cepr.net), a think tank in Washington, D.C. She wrote this originally for InsideSources.com.