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The oversight House Republicans could do — but probably won’t

Hunter Biden is priority No. 1, but D.C. and defense could use oversight

Hunter Biden, the son of President Joe Biden, at a Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony in July at the White House.
Hunter Biden, the son of President Joe Biden, at a Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony in July at the White House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“Rather, the founders wisely sought to encourage a creative tension between the president and Congress that would produce policies that advance national interests and reflect the views of the American people.” — Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind.

Creativity is in short supply in Washington these days. But tension abounds. The kind of “creative tension” Rep. Lee Hamilton described in his 2002 book, with a few annual exceptions, is a lost art.

The former vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission could have used another word: Oversight. Remember that? Only those with at least some gray and white hair — or none left at all — probably do.

Hamilton knows a thing or two about the word. He chaired the House Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees during his 34 years in office, spanning 1965-1999, perhaps the last golden era of oversight in Washington.

Forget a different era, the latter part of the above quote from his book seems like it is from another planet. Hamilton was using a “creative tension,” in part, to describe congressional panels conducting oversight to “produce policies that advance national interests and reflect the views of the American people.”

Oversight these days is mostly about winning the next primary or general election — or trying to disqualify the other side — or take care of big individual and corporate donors. Both parties played big roles in the atrophy of Congress’ oversight muscles. House Republicans have a remarkable opportunity to begin rebuilding them come Jan. 3, when the GOP will take over House committees and the chamber’s majority.

Will they squander the chance?

Kentucky GOP Rep. James Comer, the incoming House Oversight Committee chairman, has been clear about his plans for the panel.

“I mean, when you hear more stories about outrageous activities that the Biden family’s engaged in, you have to ask yourself, where is Joe Biden on this? Why doesn’t he have the decency to rein the family in?” Comer told Fox News on Dec. 9.

“I mean, the American people are concerned about corruption. They don’t want to see a president whose family’s involved in influence peddling,” he added. “I mean, when you ask yourself what business are the Bidens in, I mean, they don’t own anything, they don’t manufacture anything, they don’t have any employees, they don’t have any office space. Their business is influence peddling.”

It is important to note here that no Biden has been charged with criminal wrongdoing. President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, is the subject of a Justice Department investigation into possible tax crimes and false statements.

GOP members and candidates, including former President Donald Trump, have been focused on Hunter Biden’s abandoned laptop and the family’s business dealings for several years. In that time, the voters put Joe Biden in the White House and rejected the GOP’s plans for a “red wave” that would give them a big House majority and control of the Senate.

A vast majority of Americans and even a majority of Democratic voters want Joe Biden to bow out of the 2024 presidential race. But surveys show the reason people in both parties say that is the 80-year-old commander in chief’s age, not how he and his son made money.

Voters are worried about still-high inflation, fuel prices, immigration, crime and other matters that affect them every day. Also worthy of serious oversight by the 118th Congress are matters like the Biden administration’s deadly and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, lessons learned and not from the COVID-19 pandemic, corrosiveness in the crypto space, America’s mass shooting problem and other plights.

Comer and other incoming chairs with investigatory and subpoena powers need not look very far outside their Cannon, Longworth and Rayburn House Office Building windows for other oversight fodder.

It just isn’t every day that a major market mayor or governor proposes what amounts to seizing an independent agency. Yet, that’s what Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser wants to do with the city’s housing authority. She is proposing to shrink the troubled entity’s 12-member board to seven — and make them all appointed positions.

Appointed by whom? You guessed it: solely by the D.C. mayor. (Read: Herself.)

The Housing agency was part of the District administration until the 1990s, when it was made independent. If Bowser simply wanted to return to that arrangement, that would be one thing. But what the recently reelected Democratic mayor wants to do is drastically different, with critics like Elissa Silverman, an at-large D.C. Council member, accusing her of consolidating power.

D.C. residents, for unclear reasons, don’t seem to bat an eye. But meaningful and well-intentioned oversight of the Democratic-controlled D.C. mayor’s office and council would be a worthy task for a Republican House.

Alas, your columnist reached out to Comer’s staff, asking if the chairman-elect, whose panel’s jurisdiction will include D.C. governance, might look into Bower’s power play. No response.

Then there is the District government’s broken housing voucher program, also ripe for real oversight.

Meanwhile, House Republicans hailed the Air Force delivering a major new weapon system, the B-21 bomber, both on time and under budget. They could use the rare acquisition win to conduct oversight of other billion-dollar defense programs, even though the armed services and weapons manufacturers have shrewdly sprinkled jobs working on such initiatives across states and congressional districts from sea to shining sea.

Consider the still-troubled, budget-busting F-35 fighter program. Or the Army’s most infamous scuttled boondoggle: the Future Combat System initiative. A surefire first-ballot program for the Pentagon-industrial base-congressional triangle hall of shame is the Navy’s littoral combat ship, a development effort so bungled the vessels were deemed obsolete by the time they joined the fleet.

Longtime Pentagon watchers were probably shocked recently upon reading headlines like this one from “The Pentagon’s new stealth bomber may not be a boondoggle, for once.”

So it is no surprise that Defense Department officials held a snazzy event on Dec. 3 in Palmdale, Calif., to unveil the new bomber.

“It won’t need to be based in-theater, it won’t need logistical support to hold any target at risk,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said during that rollout. “Fifty years of advances in low-observable technology have gone into this aircraft. Even the most sophisticated air-defense systems will struggle to detect a B-21 in the sky.”

But away from the battle space, the aircraft could become something of a thorn in the side of the Air Force and Pentagon. That’s because the service and department have shown, at long last, a collective ability to turn a blueprint into a combat platform without busting budgets.

But will other military weapons programs be held to the B-21 standard? Only if members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, among others, are interested in doing real oversight.

Rep. Mike D. Rogers, R-Ala., the expected incoming House Armed Services Committee chairman, is calling for a U.S. military buildup to counter China. The version of a 2023 Pentagon authorization measure approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee under Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., proposed a hefty increase to the Biden administration’s defense budget blueprint.

When senior lawmakers want more platforms and are giving DOD new monies, effective oversight rarely thrives. But it has happened before: One defense analyst gives at least partial credit for the B-21 success to lawmakers.

Masao Dahlgren, an associate fellow with the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tweeted that the program shows the “fruits of the 2009 Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act.

“Before, [armed] services had incentives to underestimate costs, to get more programs in their budgets,” Dahlgren wrote. The 2009 law, however, required independent cost estimates, including for the B-21.

Instead of focusing on waste in contracting, senior House Republicans are zeroing in on military personnel policies, angling to use them in their never-ending culture war.

“I’ve watched what the Democrats have done in many of these, especially in the NDAA and the wokeism that they want to bring in there,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who could be speaker in the new Congress, said this week, referring to the fiscal 2023 Pentagon policy bill.

That 2009 acquisition reform law was not a cure-all. But it did feature some creative, bipartisan provisions.

Voters, however, are not holding their collective breath. They have low hopes for the 118th Congress.

How low? Well, perhaps lawmakers will take solace that a survey from Monmouth University puts voters’ expectations north of 0 percent. So there’s that.

Still, only 18 percent of those polled Dec. 8-12 believe Republicans taking over the House in January will change Washington in a positive way. On the flip side, 21 percent see a GOP-controlled House changing D.C. for the worse. Then there is the cynical lot. Fifty-one percent say the majority change will not change anything at all.

“Expectations for Washington getting its act together are very low when you ask Americans directly,” said Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth’s Polling Institute. “They’ve seen this show before.”

Depending on the day and minute, whether one sees the show as a comedy or tragedy varies wildly.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-based CQ Afternoon Briefing newsletter.

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