What the 2018 midterm elections mean for transparency and accountability in DC: Oversight

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The day after a historic midterm election night brought historic changes to the composition of Congress, state and local governments that more closely reflect the extraordinary diversity of the union, the United States remains a partisan, polarized nation.

Despite references to bipartisanship by U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and President Donald J. Trump in press conferences today, the prospects for productive camaraderie between a White House that demonizes its political opponents, the press, and immigrants and a House of Representatives that is investigating corruption, fraud, waste, and maladministration in the institution are dim this afternoon.

That is not, however, the weather forecast for sunshine in Washington.

The public should expect the 116th Congress to obtain the president’s tax returns, which he said again today that he would not disclose. (Under the law, the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee & the Joint Committee on Taxation “can obtain any of the president’s returns from the IRS without his consent.”) Expect genuine oversight of federal agencies and Investigations of the president’s conflicts of interest and abuses of power. Depending upon what the special counsel reports to Congress, articles of impeachment. And maybe even anti-corruption and ethics reform, in its wake.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, shared the grave concerns I expressed before the committee in 2017 about corruption, transparency, and ethics in this administration. Nearly every one has come to pass, and worse. In 2019, the new chairman of the oversight committee will be in a position to hold the Trump administration and the president accountable in a way he has not been before. Cummings issued a statement today that makes his commitment to doing his constitutionally mandated job clear:

“I thank the voters of Maryland’s seventh district for showing their faith in me and electing me to represent them in Congress.

The American people voted to give the House of Representatives a mandate—to conduct credible, independent, robust, and responsible oversight of the Trump Administration.

I have served as the top ranking Democrat on the Oversight Committee for nearly eight years. I have served with both Republican and Democratic Chairmen, and with Republican and Democratic Presidents. I have seen oversight work well, and I have seen it work poorly. For the past two years, it has been virtually nonexistent.

Meanwhile, President Trump has been eroding the foundations of our democracy. He has been degrading the vision of our Founding Fathers—from attacking the right to vote to undermining the freedom of the press.

Yesterday, the American people voted to change that. They voted for transparency and accountability. They voted to make sure our government works effectively and efficiently for the American people. And they voted to bring integrity back to government.

As part of that mandate, I plan to shine a light on waste, fraud, and abuse in the Trump Administration. I want to probe senior Administration officials across the government who have abused their positions of power and wasted taxpayer money, as well as President Trump’s decisions to act in his own financial self-interest rather than the best interests of the American people. I also want to focus on uplifting the American people and improving their day-to-day lives, from lowering prescription drug prices to ensuring access to affordable and quality healthcare to expanding funding for the opioid epidemic.

We must now accept this mandate and fulfill our solemn duties under the Constitution. I call on all of my Republican and Democratic colleagues to join us in this effort.”

Contrary to the hypocritical contention of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, oversight is not “presidential harassment.” While threatening to investigate Members of Congress of the opposition party for holding him to account was an abuse of public power by President Trump, there is no doubt that Congressional Democrats would be fulfilling their constitutional duty.

Congressional oversight of the executive branch has occurred throughout US history under the Constitution. Unfortunately, despite warnings from watchdogs concerned about corruption, there has been an embarrassing void of meaningful oversight in first two years of the Trump administration, despite warning signs in the presidential transition and then copious examples of ethics violations and corruption.

The 115th Congress was marked by an abdication of leadership on ethics and open government, in which Speaker of the House Paul Ryan simply abdicated his Constitutional role to check and balance a president with no experience in public service who has proceeded to brazenly mix public business with private interests in the most unethical presidency in modern U.S. history.

The public should expect more from our representatives. In 2019, we are likely to be more informed about the corruption, venality, and maladministration that has marked over the past two years in “Trump Town,” all of which Congress tolerated and even enabled through deregulation and lax oversight. In order to begin to restore public trust in federal government, those revelations will need to be accompanied by accountability and ethics reforms that an angry, active citizenry demand. Our union will only be as strong as we make it, together.