The chair-in-waiting for the once “sleepy” committee would like to investigate COVID-19’s origins, the Biden administration’s border policies and the president’s family members.
With a potential Republican takeover of the House in the midterm elections comes subpoena power, agenda setting and the opening of the floodgates of investigations into the Biden administration. This is especially true for the House Oversight and Reform Committee, the principal investigations committee that has broad jurisdiction and an eager chair-in-waiting.
“I'm cautiously optimistic that we’ll flip the House and that I'll become the chairman of the oversight committee,” Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., ranking member of the Oversight and Reform Committee, told Government Executive in a recent phone interview. “When that happens, we want to hit the ground running.”
House Republican leadership elections will take place the week after Election Day. Comer is largely viewed as the contender for oversight chair, although others could run. Those close to the president are reportedly not super worried about the possible onslaught of investigations.
A once “sleepy” committee
The Oversight and Reform committee is the main investigative committee in the House of Representatives and is authorized to look into the topics within its legislative jurisdiction––the federal civil service, government management, public information and recordkeeping, the District of Columbia’s municipal affairs, the Postal Service and the census, for instance––and any matters within other standing committees’ jurisdiction.
Don Kettl, former dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and former professor at the LBJ School at the University of Texas at Austin, said he anticipates that if the Republicans win back the House, they will ramp up investigations into the Biden administration, especially to “score political points” in the lead up to the 2024 presidential election campaign. Much of Congress’ oversight has become political, so you have to question the motivations of those involved with it, he said.
The oversight committee “was at one time a fairly sleepy committee looking at issues of the civil service and government performance and basic other issues of government management,” Kettl said. “Members from the D.C. area often would seek a seat on the committee because it would provide a way for them to weigh in on civil service questions in dealing with their constituents.”
But “that’s changing as you can see now with [Rep.] Marjorie Taylor Greene [R-Ga.] saying in advance of what Republicans hope will be a takeover that she wants a seat on the committee,” Kettl noted. Greene, a member of the far-right wing of the Republican party, has been a polarizing figure.
Kettl said he doesn’t expect much legislation that would affect government management and operations to be enacted the next two years between either a divided Congress or the Democrats having a very slim majority. “Everything will be in the shadow of what’s coming down the road,” meaning the 2024 campaign. Control of the Senate remains a toss-up.
Consistent with historical precedent, all House committees spent less time conducting oversight of the executive branch during the current, 117th, Congress when the House, Senate and White House were controlled by the same party, as opposed to under a divided government during the 116th Congress in 2019 and 2020, said an analysis from the Brookings Institution published on October 21. “This trend—consistent with historical evidence—suggests that a return to a partisan split between the House and the White House in 2023 would likely bring a resurgence of oversight activity targeted at the Biden administration.”
The chair-in-waiting’s plans
Comer said he thinks of the committee’s work in two buckets, the first being “traditional oversight,” as in rooting out waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government.
“I'm very passionate about trying to shrink the size of government and eliminate unnecessary spending, reform programs that need to be reformed and even programs that need to be ended,” said Comer, echoing a familiar Republican refrain. He said this will be a priority for his committee, specifically through the subcommittees, so they can support the American taxpayers. He has suggested committee members Reps. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., and Yvette Herrell, R-N.M., would be subcommittee chairs and he has floated adding Greene to the committee, according to previous reports.
When asked how he plans to shrink programs and rein in spending with a potentially divided Congress and a Democrat still in the White House, he acknowledged there will be compromises and said, “I know that in an appropriations process, I'm not going to get everything I want, but I do believe that we can make some progress.”
The second bucket is investigations.
Comer said he and his members have been working for months to gather information “to really come out of the gate strong in three major areas of investigations.” These are: the origins of COVID-19; the “disaster” at the U.S.-Mexico border; and alleged “influence peddling” by Hunter Biden, the president’s son, as well as Jim Biden, the president’s brother.
When asked if there are any issues he thinks he can work with the Democrats on, he named the origins of COVID, fraud in the pandemic relief programs and “a lot of contracts, big contracts, especially in the Pentagon, that are probably not in the best interest of the American taxpayers.”
With respect to the politicization of oversight, he said everything the committee does “is going to be credible and factual, and we're not going to mislead the American people.” Comer added he believes Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, “has done more to harm the credibility of congressional investigations than any member in the history of the U.S. Congress… I think that you've got to restore credibility to the oversight committee and hopefully that'll start with me in January.” Schiff’s office did not respond for comment.
Over the summer, Comer blasted the Democrats for failing to conduct proper oversight of the federal government and said it was “not surprising” they received an “F” for their oversight from the Lugar Center, a nonprofit that works to advance bipartisan governance.
According to Politico, “there is a growing confidence both in and outside the White House that the Republicans who are readying a smorgasbord of investigations will end up overreaching and that the probes will ultimately boomerang to Democrats’ political benefit.” While the White House has been preparing for possible Republican investigations since 2020 “the efforts have accelerated since veteran D.C. lawyer Dick Sauber joined the administration in May as special counsel focusing on oversight, with Ian Sams managing comms,” Politico said. “Sauber’s team is likely to grow once a clearer picture of the political landscape emerges after the midterms.”
The White House declined to comment on Government Executive’s questions about Comer’s plans.
“Democrats on the oversight committee remain focused on addressing the issues that impact Americans’ everyday lives, like growing the economy, keeping Americans safe from gun violence, and protecting women’s right to choose,” a committee spokesperson for the Democrats told Government Executive. “Republicans have made clear that they plan to continue attacking President Biden and his family to score cheap political points and distract from their extreme, unpopular agenda that most Americans reject.”
With the current committee chair Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., leaving Congress next year, several Democrats are already vying for the leadership spot in that party.
The House Select Subcommittee on the COVID Crisis, which was created in April 2020, is also a part of the House Oversight and Reform Committee and Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La, ranking member of the panel and House minority whip, has been sharing what Republicans hope to do if they are victorious in the midterms.
“Since the pandemic’s start, Republican leaders and former President Trump have gone out of their way to attack, demonize and discredit our nation’s public health officials,” said Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. chair of the panel and House majority whip. “The select subcommittee has released volumes of evidence detailing the Trump administration’s politically-motivated interference in public health agencies during this time.” Clyburn criticized the memo the Republican staff released on October 19 following a report the Democrats released on how Trump officials sought to undermine the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention early on in the pandemic.
“The ongoing Republican attacks on science and public health are among the many reasons why, in less than two weeks, the American people will deliver control of both chambers of Congress to Democrats to build on the progress we have made in the past two years,” Clyburn said.
The bigger picture
Comer, who first came to Congress in November 2016, was endorsed by former President Trump in May who said, “as the lead Republican on the oversight committee, Jamie is fighting hard to hold Joe Biden and the Radical Left accountable for failing the American people, from covering up Hunter Biden’s blatant corruption to botching their abysmal withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
If the Republicans win the House in the midterms, it won’t just be Comer’s committee conducting oversight. For example, the House Judiciary Committee with a possible Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, at the helm could ramp up investigations into the FBI and Justice Department as well as the FBI’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort over the summer. Overall, House Republicans have been briefing staffers on conducting oversight, according to PunchBowl News.
Also, one of the pillars of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s “Commitment to America” agenda that he rolled out in September as a rallying cry and blueprint if his party regains the majority, is government accountability. Many are comparing it to Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract with America.”
“House Republicans have put the Biden administration on notice—with more than 500 requests for information and documents,” the agenda reads. “When backed by subpoena power, the American people will finally get some of the answers they deserve.”