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Democrats Promise More Trump Investigations If They Win The House


In the scandals of President Trump's administration, one thing has been missing - congressional oversight hearings. This is where we see lawmakers grill officials about alleged misdeeds. But if Democrats win control of the House, they are promising a new era of investigations. Here's NPR's Peter Overby.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Democrats would put Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland in charge of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Cummings has plans for potential investigations - among them, the political ties that protected former EPA chief Scott Pruitt for so long, the security vetting done on Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, the Justice Department and its record on voting rights. Cummings told Politico recently, he wants to work with committee Republicans.


ELIJAH CUMMINGS: Those are the kinds of things we're going to have to do. And it's not going to be very pleasant for them. It's not going to be very pleasant for me. But I signed up for this job, and this is what I'm supposed to do.

OVERBY: That's how congressional oversight is supposed to work but hasn't - not with one party controlling Washington the past two years. Justin Rood is a former congressional investigator now with the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.

JUSTIN ROOD: What we've seen is not only a stretch of time when you have an executive branch that has been breaking norms but you have a Congress who's sat by without consequence and allowed that to happen without significant accountability.

OVERBY: Democrats would face pressure from their base to impeach President Trump. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi says she's against it. Here she is last week at Harvard's Institute of Politics.


NANCY PELOSI: I think an impeachment, to use that word, is very divisive. That isn't a path that I would like to go down.

OVERBY: Pelosi says Democrats should go after Trump's tax returns. He's refused to disclose them. Democrats would have the authority to get them. At the House Intelligence Committee, prospective chair Adam Schiff of California says he would probe allegations that Russia has financial leverage over Trump. The Trump administration has ignored virtually all information requests from congressional Democrats. But there's a workaround for that: get the documents from friendly nonprofit groups that get them through the Freedom of Information Act. Austin Evers is director of American Oversight, a progressive group that's now filing FOIA requests.

AUSTIN EVERS: It's actually very difficult to enforce a congressional subpoena in court. In contrast, a Freedom of Information Act request, which we could file, we can go to court very easily and force agencies to be transparent.

OVERBY: It's worth noting this FOIA strategy was honed by conservative groups in the Obama era. House Democrats plan to have all the committees doing oversight - investigating Cabinet secretaries who broke the rules, protecting Obamacare, finding out what went wrong with hurricane relief and tackling other issues that Republicans have brushed off. One master of oversight is former Congressman Henry Waxman. During 40 years in the House, he investigated everything from the tobacco industry to the Iraq War. Waxman listed three goals of good oversight - stop the waste of money, hold people accountable and make government work the way it should. His words of caution to House Democrats: don't do oversight the way the Republicans have recently.

HENRY WAXMAN: The committees of Congress used their power, which is an incredible amount of power, and abused it for simply political points, simply to advance their election interests.

OVERBY: Waxman said that's not what oversight should be about.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF TALL BLACK GUY'S "FROM HOME, TO WORK, AND BACK...") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.