Oversight-in-exile group papers agencies as groundwork should Democrats get subpoena power after midterms

House Homeland Security Committee hearing room. (House.gov)
House Homeland Security Committee hearing room. (House.gov)

Things will change after the midterm elections, one way or another.

If Republicans maintain control of Congress, Trump will feel even more empowered to indulge his impulses, knowing he has two more years to operate essentially unchecked by the legislative branch.

But if Republicans lose control of one or both houses, Democratic committee chairs will use their regained subpoena power to demand answers about the many scandals burbling throughout the executive branch, virtually any one of which would have been an exception and an outrage in previous administrations.

American Oversight, launched in early 2017 to fill the void left by a supine Congress in the Trump era, has been laying the groundwork for future congressional investigations through the extensive use of Freedom of Information Act requests, followed by aggressive litigation.

The eventual goal of the group’s “parallel investigations initiative” is to pair FOIA litigation with aggressive congressional oversight, to create “a feedback loop of oversight that is much harder for agencies to resist,” according to the group’s website.

But even now it’s reaping some rewards. For instance, resumes turned over from Cabinet agencies have documented ridiculous levels of politically-motivated and under-qualified hiring,

The group is also working in parallel to what few investigation the current Congress is conducting. So when the chair and ranking member of the House Oversight Committee asked the Department of Homeland Security for documents related to preparation for Hurricanes Irma and Maria, American Oversight followed up with a similar FOIA request.

The FOIA process is a notoriously slow and sometime onerous way to get information from government agencies, where understaffed FOIA offices often slow-walk requests and over-liberally apply exemption rules.

But American Oversight founder Austin Evers, who handled oversight requests for the State Department in the Obama administration, said that congressional subpoenas aren’t a “magic wand” either.

“They are notoriously difficult to enforce against even the most faithful administrations – and no one should expect ‘complying with subpoenas’ to be the first norm that President Trump decides to obey,” Evers said.

“Our parallel investigations initiative will give congressional oversight an extra set of teeth. Unlike congressional document requests, there is mechanism way to enforce FOIAs in court quickly and aggressively. Congress can use what we extract at hearings and in negotiations, and if we get something they didn’t, it can be evidence of obstruction.”

Politico recently ran profiles of the prospective Democratic committee chairs “poised to torment Trump,” whose “questions cover a host of Trump scandals, including his tax returns; the Trump International Hotel; Russia, the 2016 election and Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin; security clearances; immigration, family separation and the border wall; and the president’s attacks on the media.”

And Axios reported on a spreadsheet “that’s circulated through Republican circles on and off Capitol Hill — including at least one leadership office — that meticulously previews the investigations Democrats will likely launch if they flip the House.”

The spreadsheet included 18 topics, several mentioned above, but also including Trump’s hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels, White House staff’s personal email use, and discussions of classified information at Mar-a-Lago.

Clark Pettig, American Oversight’s communications director, said “we had already filed FOIAs on at least 11 of the topics on that list.”

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