What to expect next for both Republicans and Democrats use of congressional oversight in the 117th Congress and incoming administration.
At A Glance
- Both Republicans and Democrats are likely to continue current, highly politicized investigations.
- With a divided Congress look for both parties to use oversight to position their legislative agenda for success in 2022 and beyond.
- Big Tech will share bipartisan enmity but for very different reasons.
Lay of the Land
A long and difficult election season has ended with a new President-elect and a divided Congress. While legislating will be difficult, congressional oversight is poised to become the preferred tool for each party to advance its agenda.
Every committee in Congress has oversight responsibilities and authorities. Rarely, however, are congressional leaders able to coordinate oversight efforts across these committees, with committee chairmen seeking to stake out leadership positions on issues that resonate with them and their political base and that support their political brand. Nevertheless, there are some general rules of thumb that each chamber is likely to follow and a number of policy areas that will receive high profile attention.
Traditionally, a party that controls one chamber of Congress but not the White House focuses their oversight attention on the administration. Senate Republicans are sure to follow that precedent, pulling on any thread that undermines Biden.
Democrats are also likely to continue current investigations into various Trump Administration policies and actions. However, Democratic leadership will try to get their Members to be more forward-looking, using their oversight efforts to build a case for the core components of their policy agenda.
House of Representatives
If Republicans maintain control of the Senate, House Democratic leadership understands that its legislative agenda is likely to stall. Effective oversight can put Republicans on the defensive on issues most pressing to the Democratic base. Looking at Democrats’ messaging can help identify the issues they will likely seek to address.
- Climate Change. Democrats will continue to press for action on climate change. The attitudes of rank and file Republicans regarding the human impact on climate change are beginning to shift, and Democrats are likely to increase the pressure on Republicans to act.
- Labor Rights. President-elect Biden won the 2022 election in part by rebuilding the “Blue Wall” of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, promising to “Build Back Better.” Biden’s explicit appeal to the Rust Belt working class reflects his deep ties and commitment to the area and to organized labor, and House Democrats and relevant federal agencies are likely to come down hard on labor law violations.
- Big Tech. Big Tech – Amazon, Google, Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Apple – is the rare sector drawing bipartisan anger, albeit for different reasons. The House Subcommittee on Antitrust, led by Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI-1) produced a 449-page report on the monopoly power of these companies and its effect on the market for digital services. Republicans, however, are more concerned with perceived anti-conservative bias on these platforms. A bipartisan legislative solution is unlikely without agreement on what the underlying problem is, so expect continued oversight activity to be the primary tool of engagement.
- Social Justice and Police Reform. The nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd reignited calls for social justice and police reforms. The Biden Administration and House Democrats will likely turn to oversight investigations to continue pressing their message since federal legislation is unlikely if Republicans retain control of the Senate.
- Healthcare. Healthcare continues to be among the top issues on voters’ minds in every election. The Coronavirus pandemic itself will be the focus of legislators until the pandemic subsides, but it has also raised a number of related issues that have received little attention in the past, including cybersecurity and telehealth policies.
If Republicans win one of the two runoffs in Georgia, they will maintain their majority in the Senate. Assuming continued Republican control of the Senate, Committee leaders will focus their oversight activity on the Biden Administration and negative policy consequences that they can blame on the President-elect. They will also take on issues that will rally their base.
- Hunter Biden. Republicans, led by Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), who will be Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations – the preeminent investigative committee in the Senate – and Senator Grassley (R-IA), who will reclaim his chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, will almost certainly continue their investigations into Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine and China in an effort to undermine the President-elect and diminish his political capital.
- Administration Oversight. With a Democrat in the White House, Republicans will return to topics that have successfully rallied their base up in the past. Biden’s energy and environmental policies and efforts to overturn Trump’s hardline immigration policies will be among their top priorities.
- Big Tech. As noted above, Republicans will continue to push the narrative that the major tech companies’ senior leadership and algorithms suppress conservative voices.
- China. President Trump made trade and global competition with China a centerpiece of his administration, elevating the issue with the public and directly tying it to the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S., particularly in the Midwest. Senator Portman (R-OH), who will assume the chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) has demonstrated knowledge and interest in oversight of the U.S.-China relationship.
- Covid Relief Funding. Even if McConnell and Pelosi reach a deal on a Covid relief package in the lame duck session of Congress, Republicans will try to shift blame to the Biden Administration for any instances of waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars from the relief package. Recipients of the funding will continue to be under a microscope.