With his administration’s continual forays into corruption and misconduct, President Trump has demonstrated repeatedly the wisdom of the Founders’ system of checks and balances: The absence of congressional oversight in 2017 and 2018 enabled presidential impunity on a scale never seen before. Oversight’s return with the new Congress is one of the most important developments of 2019, but House Republicans are already threatening to abdicate their share of the responsibility.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the new chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has promised to reopen the committee’s investigations of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and of Trump’s various ties with Russia. In 2018, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, along with his GOP colleagues, famously ended their inquiry into the same topics and declared they had found no collusion.
Schiff’s plans are not a surprise; he promised to pursue the facts left under-investigated by Nunes if given control. However, a recent report suggests that Nunes and other Republicans may boycott Schiff’s investigation. That was not expected, nor is it at all normal or optimal. Whether the Republicans agree with the need for the investigation or not, they have a duty to participate. Moreover, abdicating their opportunity to participate is shortsighted because they will forgo opportunities to impact the investigation.
At least in theory, the House’s Russia investigation would be better, and more credible, if skeptics participated in reviewing documents, interrogating witnesses, and presenting findings to the public. For example, when the Republicans established the Select Committee on Benghazi in 2014, Democrats reluctantly participated even though they disagreed with the need for further investigation. Indeed, they assigned some of their top oversight experts to the task, including Schiff and Rep. Elijah Cummings, who now chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
By participating, the Democrats were able to cross-examine witnesses and highlight facts that conflicted with the Republicans’ Benghazi narrative. In the end, their participation led to the select committee issuing an 800-page report that, to the shock of many, hewed largely to the facts and debunked long-standing conspiracy theories. It is doubtful that the select committee would have been so reserved if they had not faced constant checks from Cummings, Schiff, and other members.
Likewise, the most respected congressional investigations of the past 30 years were bipartisan. The Watergate and Iran-Contra investigations have credibility, in part, because their findings were tested by both sides of the aisle. Importantly, neither investigation was bipartisan in the sense that both parties agreed on everything; they were hotly contested and fraught inquiries. But both sides had the opportunity to participate and present their views.
It may be tempting to celebrate the Republicans’ potential boycott of the Russia investigation given their behavior over the past two years. Nunes quite openly used his position to run interference for the White House and blocked efforts to pursue open factual questions, such as the identity behind the “blocked number” that Donald Trump Jr. communicated with after a Trump Tower meeting about getting dirt on Secretary Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign. However, the absence of the Republicans would be detrimental for at least two reasons that likely outweigh the benefits of missing out on their partisan, bad-faith oversight tactics.
First, people understand the importance of the opportunity to be heard; our tradition of due process makes us skeptical of processes that hear only from one side. That is not to say that the investigation would lack legitimacy if Republicans boycotted, but a boycott would put extra onus on Schiff and his colleagues to thoroughly demonstrate their substantive and procedural good faith throughout the investigation.
Second, Schiff and the Democrats would benefit from testing their investigation in real time against the objections and critiques of the Republicans — even if those objections and critiques are made in bad faith and meritless. Schiff’s conclusions will be more durable if they are reached through a contested process.
If Nunes and the Republicans decide to boycott the Russia investigation in the Intelligence Committee, the public should respond in two ways. First, the public should expect Schiff to go out of his way to ensure his findings are credible and supported by facts. He will need to show his work carefully and publicly. By all accounts, Schiff intends to do so, which is laudable. Second, the public should reject any commentary or attacks from members who choose to boycott the process. If Republicans abdicate their responsibility, they should lose the credibility to comment on the substance of the findings. If they want people to listen to them, they need to be in the room when the evidence is collected and vetted.
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