Oversight and Investigations: Where Will Democrats Focus?

Charles Cooper

There has been a lot of speculation about how a new Democratic Congress will approach their oversight and investigations responsibilities.

Co-authored by Charles Cooper and Madeline Wade

There has been a lot of speculation about how a new Democratic Congress will approach their oversight and investigations responsibilities, especially with a Republican president in the White House. Will they have an aggressive agenda that focuses on political vulnerabilities of the President and Congressional Republicans? Will they focus on protecting (and in some cases correcting) key federal programs? Will they bring industry into their oversight agenda? Simply put, yes.

When Democrats last took control of the House, the 110th Congress was called “the oversight congress” due to their aggressive oversight of President Bush’s Administration. Ultimately, it led to a sizeable list of resignations of senior agency officials and some significant policy changes. As will be the case in the 116th Congress, investigations were long, public, and connected to a broader agenda. It was effective oversight, impactful messaging, and powerful politically.

We expect much of the same with Democrats in charge of the House in the 116th Congress.

For the new Congress, we believe that three core areas are likely to dominate Democrats’ oversight and investigations agenda in the House: (1) actions and practices of the Trump administration, (2) Democratic policy priorities impacted by the Trump Administration, and (3) policy areas where Democrats believe Republicans have failed to act. While most of the oversight and investigations will focus exclusively on the Trump Administration over the next two years, the latter two categories will highlight areas oversight could intersect with industry.

Oversight into actions and policies of the Trump Administration will include a long list of concerns the Democrats have had both within the White House and across federal agencies. In most cases, Democrats have openly criticized Republicans for not further exploring many well-publicized allegations, especially those that involve political leadership. These range from potential misuse of official travel to the use of personal email to alleged Russian collusion during the 2016 presidential campaign. The most obvious areas Democrats would focus on when looking for oversight and investigations opportunities of the administration would be the subjects of the 52 subpoenas proposed by Democrats that Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform rejected over the last two years. Without question, the Democrats narrow focus around administration leadership, procedures, and practices will dominate oversight and investigations in the 116th Congress.

Democrats are also likely to focus on areas where their own policy priorities have been impacted by the Trump Administration over the past two years. While not exclusively, the President’s 85 executive orders provide a good roadmap of where Democrats may focus as part of their oversight agenda. These issues would broadly include energy and environmental protection (climate change and the reversal of environmental regulatory rollbacks), immigration (separation of families, Dreamers, and the travel ban), healthcare (ACA reforms and insurance coverage), reforms to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and changes impacting labor unions and workers.

Lastly, there will be a will focus on oversight around issues where Democrats believe Republicans have failed to act during the 115th the Congress. This includes issues like privacy, gun violence, and middle-class tax cuts.

To put these core areas into perspective, there are few federal agencies that won’t face significant oversight and the closer entities are to White House policies, the more likely the attention on them will increase. For industries, there will be less direct attention, but plenty of opportunity to be an adjacent focus (or example) of the oversight likely to be conducted around policy. Industries around healthcare (insurance and drug prices), environment (climate and energy development), and financial services are likely to have some overlap with the Democrats oversight agenda; it will be important for these industries (and any others) to analyze and build an early stage strategy around the policy risk that often develops as a result of aggressive oversight.

The nearly unlimited number of issues for Democrats to pick from gets to the core of how difficult it is to construct an oversight agenda when they have the entire federal government and policy portfolio at their fingertips. Every Member of Congress has his or her own priority, and one Member’s priority is another Member’s political vulnerability. What Democrats must decide now is how to maintain a coherent message and pick the issues that they believe will align with their oversight goals.