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Watchdog firings show Congress still feels effects of impeachment

While it may feel like the impeachment of President Trump was a lifetime ago, the effects of his acquittal linger in Congress, especially in oversight of the White House and federal agencies. Ever since his acquittal, Trump has been thumbing his nose at oversight prerogatives, firing a number of inspectors general over the last few weeks, including Steven Linick at the State Department. The dismissals greatly erode a fundamental check on executive authority and further erode legislative oversight for the White House, including the coronavirus response and economic stimulus.

Such firings of inspectors general are not just a shot across the oversight bow. It is an escalation by the president. While former administrations of both parties have ignored oversight requests, the termination of multiple inspectors general without a detailed cause given to Congress takes the power struggle between the government branches to a new peak.

While there are mullings of investigations in Congress into the motives behind some dismissals, recent history suggests our lawmakers cannot muster tangible pushback against a president who expects inspectors general to espouse loyalty to him. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo voiced the expectation in his response to the firing of Litnick when he declared, “They serve at his pleasure for any reason or no reason.”

That is certainly not the purpose of inspectors general. Congress created them in the 1970s after it had become clear that “fraud, abuse, and waste” in the operations of federal departments and agencies reached “epidemic proportions.” To combat the all malfeasance, Congress placed inspectors general in agencies with the power to investigate and provide information to the legislative branch as to major wrongdoing. Inspectors general may serve in the executive branch, but they are ultimately critical watchdogs for the legislative branch, and their independence is paramount.

What does impeachment have to do with Congress failing to push back on the dismissals of investigatory authorities? The second the Senate spared Trump, the politics of conducting any meaningful oversight turned against Congress and especially against Democrats. Upon his acquittal, the White House and most Republicans understood that subsequent investigations of executive branch misconduct would look like, or be spun to voters, as Democrats not able to move on, not having a policy agenda of their own, and willing to investigate the president as a means of obstruction.

Even voters wonder if their best shot to hold the president accountable is at the ballot box rather than through additional investigations. Democrats in Congress appear to have all but lost the political will to investigate the White House and federal agencies even when there is clearly cause to do so. Trump is taking advantage of this as he grows more brazen since he is confident he will face minimal political repercussions in Congress.

Senate Republicans have a proven history of explaining away many of his misdeeds, while House Democrats have already used their most powerful weapon in their arsenal with impeachment. Trump knows that they cannot reasonably use it again. It is why the president can tweet a threat to cut off federal funding to Michigan, ironically the same type of quid pro quo that spurred his impeachment, and be confident the story will not last.

The reality is a difficult yet important political pill to swallow. Though we heard plenty of words more akin to courtrooms during the Ukraine saga, impeachment is still chiefly a political mechanism rather than a legal one. As much as we hope the removal of an elected president would solely be a moral decision made by our representatives in Congress, the reality is that its outcome will always have lasting political consequences. A very real effect of the impeachment and acquittal of Trump is the diminished will of Congress to continue to use its oversight tools and authorities to hold the White House and numerous federal agencies to account.

Congress is capable of changing this balance of power by strengthening protections, asserting independence of inspectors general, and requiring far more detailed timely cause before terminations of inspectors general. Congress could write and pass such a bill in days, and some high ranking Republicans seem sympathetic to the need. Congress could go so far as to cut off appropriations from pet policy projects of the White House or even from the executive office of the president that funds his staff.

Congress after all enjoys the power of the purse. But until there is strong bipartisan commitment to stand up to a president hellbent on removing independent investigative authorities, the threat of true and meaningful legislative oversight rings more and more hollow with every firing.

Casey Burgat is an assistant professor and director of legislative affairs at George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.

Tags Congress Constitution Democrats Donald Trump Impeachment Republicans

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