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The Levin Legacy: Next-Gen Congressional Oversight

Retired Michigan Democrat’s center trains staffers on effective oversight

Former Michigan Sen. Carl Levin built a legacy of tough oversight as chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Former Michigan Sen. Carl Levin built a legacy of tough oversight as chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

More than 100 congressional staffers have now completed boot camps designed to boost the investigative skills of House and Senate staff, thanks in part to the retirement work of former Sen. Carl Levin.

The Michigan Democrat had a particular interest in oversight, wielding the gavel of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations through hearings on topics from the 2008 financial crisis, to oil and gas speculation, to “dirty bomb” vulnerabilities, and issues within the United Nations Development Program.

“It is so important that the executive branch have a congressional branch which aggressively and effectively looks at programs to see whether or not the programs and the laws are working well, to see which new laws might be needed and to see what wrongdoing needs to be remedied,” Levin said in an interview.

So it should be no surprise that the Levin Center at Wayne Law at Wayne State University has focused on improving the capability of Congress when it comes to the kind of complex investigations that have the power to lead to legislative outcomes.

“It’s primary focus is on improving the ability of Congress to conduct complex oversight,” said Elise Bean, co-director of the Levin Center Washington. “It’s pretty obvious I guess, that oversight has taken on an increased role in the 115th Congress, but it’s always been the lifeblood of Congress.”

Bipartisan focus

The boot camps are intensive, two-day training sessions, led by bipartisan instructors with experience running investigations for the likes of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Generally, participants are split into four groups to work through an investigation of a pair of invented scandals, with an expert investigator helping each team overcome obstacles.

“A lot of the oversight is done by unsung heroes,” said Justin Rood, who leads the Congressional Oversight Initiative at the Project on Government Oversight, or POGO.

Rood is among the instructors at the boot camps, having worked for former Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. POGO and the Lugar Center, the nonprofit directed by former Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., are the Levin Center’s partners in the program.

As a former journalist, including a stint as a producer at ABC News who worked on breaking the D.C. Madam story, Rood said that when he went to work in the Senate, “I was surprised that, having worked in newsrooms for many years, what a relief it was to have the authority to actually get some of the answers.”

But Rood said he has discovered staffers often do not know what to do when they are stonewalled, especially by the executive branch, citing a “disconnect between authority and capability.”

“It’s absolutely astonishing how many times a congressional staffer is simply told ‘no’ by an agency,” Rood said, adding that since President Donald Trump took office in January, he has heard complaints of staffers simply not having calls returned by federal departments and agencies. Some of that may be attributable to the slow pace of staffing political appointees under Trump.

Levin, who was also the longtime chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it is important that committees make clear that members of either party have the right to make oversight requests.

“It’s not unheard of that people are going to not return phone calls or turn over documents,” Levin said. “Whether it’s the beginning of an administration or the middle of an administration, the very clear answer’s got to be that an oversight committee has got to then assert its authority.”

New concerns

Senate Democrats have expressed concern that the Trump administration may be, as a matter of policy, ignoring their requests.

“We issued subpoenas with the understanding of the minority — and often issued subpoenas for the minority — to make sure that if people are saying ‘no’ and resisting requests, that it won’t be tolerated,” Levin said. “Usually, just the threat of a subpoena will unglue a lot of information and response.”

As for the boot camps themselves, the participants have been committee and personal office aides from both sides of the Rotunda and are focused on topics both in the news and those that get much less attention.

“The purpose of congressional investigations [is] to affect policy. They’re not a prosecution,” Bean said. “Congress can’t put anybody in jail, and they can’t fine anybody as a result of wrongdoing. What they’re trying to do is affect policy.”

The boot camps are held in the House and Senate office buildings, the most recent one took place over the Memorial Day recess. With roughly 20 to 25 participants per session, the project has now crossed the century mark in terms of staffers trained.

One of the key lessons? Patience.

“If you’re really going to be fact-based, and you’re really going to be bipartisan, you have to take the time for everybody’s understanding of an issue to mature together,” Bean said. “That means doing document review together, doing interviews together, doing factual analysis together, and that can’t be rushed.”

Of course, that need to be thorough can be a challenge when an investigation is the lead story in a 24/7 news cycle, as is the case with the House and Senate Intelligence committees’ investigations into alleged efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“People think there’s some magic in oversight, that there’s some secret talents to it, and to be honest, it’s just a matter of sheer hard work,” Bean said. “You draw up an investigative plan, you say who should I talk to, what kind of documents could I look at, what are the issues, and then you go ahead and get the documents, you actually read the documents.”

Of late, Levin’s old Investigations Subcommittee has shown its value with a comprehensive investigation of the use of the website for trafficking in persons and by holding a hearing on controlling shipments of synthetic opioid painkillers — both priorities of the current chairman, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

UNITED STATES - MAY 25: Chairman Rob Portman, R-Ohio, left, and Ranking Member Tom Carper, D-Del., conduct a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing in Dirksen Building titled
Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Thomas R. Carper of Delaware are the current leaders of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Bean worked for Levin for 29 years, including as staff director and chief counsel at the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, including during the probe of the Enron accounting scandal.

She said the bipartisan nature of the PSI, partly enshrined in the subcommittee’s rules, dates to the lessons learned from the chairmanship of the late GOP Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who used the panel’s power recklessly to advance his conspiracy theories and witch hunts looking for communists.

“If you’re going to reach a bipartisan consensus on the facts, which in today’s world is actually quite difficult and actually has been very difficult for many years, … you have to do the investigation together,” Bean said.

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