On Thursday, Rep. Alex X. Mooney became the latest Republican in Congress to publicly call for Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to step down, joining more than 40 of his colleagues who have either demanded his resignation, urged his impeachment or otherwise suggested he find another line of work.
Four months into the 118th Congress, Republicans have called on five Biden appointees to resign, with some — like Mayorkas and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg — facing multiple requests to hand in their ID badges.
On a single day in April, Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Josh Hawley of Missouri both demanded Mayorkas resign, while over in the House, Rep. Warren Davidson called for restructuring the Securities and Exchange Commission to remove Chairman Gary Gensler.
In most contexts, loudly yelling at someone for something that’s never going to happen is a sign of insanity. But at the U.S. Capitol, that was just another Tuesday.
The president himself hasn’t avoided the self-defenestration entreaties — Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina called on both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to vacate the White House and Naval Observatory over the Chinese spy balloon hullabaloo in February. Since Biden took office in 2021, GOP congressmen have demanded that nine members of his Cabinet resign, including more than half of the secretaries running the 15 executive departments.
To be fair, this is a bipartisan phenomenon. When Donald Trump was in the White House, Democrats asked for resignation letters from Attorney General William Barr, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Kathleen Kraninger, and interim CFPB Director Mick Mulvaney, among others. And, of course, they went a bit farther than merely asking Trump to resign when they impeached him, twice.
In recent weeks, some Democrats have also petitioned Justice Clarence Thomas to permanently recuse himself from the Supreme Court over revelations that he failed to report gifts lavished on him by a billionaire GOP donor.
It may seem like these sorts of pronouncements — often in front of cameras or quickly broadcast on social media — have less to do with checks and balances among the branches of government, and more to do with soliciting checks to raise campaign account balances. But political scientists say that might be a smidge too cynical.
“It's an uphill battle for Congress to keep tabs on the bureaucracy,” said Douglas Kriner, a Cornell University professor and author of multiple books on American political institutions and the separation of powers.
Since it first met in 1789, Congress has used its oversight powers to check the executive. “It's trying to highlight embarrassing things that may have happened with the administration and bringing popular pressure to bear on them, either to change course or just inflict political damage,” Kriner said. “There's always been a partisan element to that. It's much more partisan now — especially in a polarized era [and] especially in the House — than it used to be.”
That polarization has made lawmaking more difficult, leading more presidents to turn to the rulemakings and other unilateral actions to enact their agendas. Polarization has also made it harder for Congress to subsequently reverse or limit the executive branch’s activities with legislation. That leaves Congress with little it can do beyond causing a scene. “Making bombastic claims and signaling to your voters that you’re on the right side of an issue, that’s a lot of what we’re seeing here,” Kriner said.
That’s especially true on the most politically salient issues, Kriner said — the goal is to rally the public to pressure the administration to either change course or lose votes in the next election. “The Biden Administration and Republicans in the House are diametrically opposed on immigration, so it’s better to just scream ‘off with your head’ over and over,” he said. “You can point out everything that is wrong, blame the administration for it and cater to your base at the same time.”
And DHS Secretary Mayorkas has endured the most heat this year, facing at least eight congressional demands to resign.
Shortly after Republicans won control of the House in the 2022 midterms, incoming Speaker Kevin McCarthy traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border to demand Mayorkas pink slip himself. Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Texas, sponsored a resolution to impeach Mayorkas in January, and Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., introduced his own less than a month later.
When Hawley told Mayorkas at the Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing in April that he “should have resigned long ago,” the Missouri Republican might have been referring specifically to three weeks earlier, when he said the DHS Secretary “should resign,” at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. (That was approximately 10 minutes after Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said basically the same thing in the midst of accusing Mayorkas of being “willing to let children be raped to follow political orders.”)
There are diminishing returns to the performative pleas. By the time Hawley and Johnson demanded Mayorkas commit career harakiri, the resignation requests were so hackneyed that many headline writers decided to focus on more substantive criticisms levied at the hearing rather than the high dudgeon dramatics. And these demands are probably the most serious of the bunch: Mayorkas hired impeachment lawyers in February in the expectation of facing hearings in the GOP-controlled House at some point.
Attention grabs or sincerity?
While demanding that the president or a top-ranking secretary resign seems designed to get your name in the paper, the calls for lesser-known officials' removal may be more sincere, said Hannah Brant, a SUNY Geneseo political science professor.
She pointed to Rep. Davidson’s bill to remove the SEC chair. Davidson, an outspoken proponent of cryptocurrencies who founded the Congressional Sound Money Caucus, laced into Gensler over the SEC’s aggressive enforcement of the scandal-plagued industry. That “appears to be more about checks and balances — most people couldn’t tell you who the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission is,” Brant said. “Davidson said he's going to introduce legislation for removal of chair Gensler — that has more teeth to it. There's more substance there rather than just a viral clip.”
On the other hand, Brant added, it could just be a play for campaign contributions from some deep-pocketed special interests. “Davidson’s audience that he’s speaking to is the crypto people, not his constituents,” she said.
A handful of Republicans targeted Buttigieg, a once and perhaps future presidential candidate, after a freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, turned into a slow-moving environmental disaster. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio wrote a letter asking Biden to sack Buttigieg for “a gross level of incompetence and apathy,” and Florida Rep. Michael Waltz introduced a resolution with 11 cosponsors condemning him. The GOP did not, however, ask EPA Administrator Michael Regan, an unlikely prospect for a White House run, to hand in his ID badge.
At a House Armed Services Committee hearing in March, Rep. Cory Mills of Florida spent his allotted five minutes telling Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III that he “should have resigned” over the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan rather than asking any questions. Rep. Larry Bucshon of Indiana said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm should quit after she said the U.S. could learn from China’s efforts to address climate change.
The administration isn’t Congress’ only resignation target. Some have also taken aim at members of their own parties who aren’t helping the cause. A number of Democrats asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to resign after her prolonged absence slowed efforts to confirm Biden’s judicial appointees (a move Hawley called “unseemly”). She returned this week. And while members of both parties have told Rep. George Santos to quit, it’s been his fellow New York Republicans who have tried most aggressively to shame the shameless liar into resigning, even before this week's indictment.
Facing pressure from colleagues, Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken resigned in 2017 over reports of inappropriately kissing women. In 2019, Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan resigned shortly after a bipartisan House Financial Services Committee grilling related to an account fraud scandal.
Demanding that an official resign can work, Kriner said, when it’s combined with serious oversight. He pointed to congressional investigations into mismanagement of the EPA during President Ronald Reagan’s first term, which forced out relatively lackadaisical administrator Anne Gorsuch and saw the EPA’s first administrator, Bill Ruckelshaus, return to the role.
Those earnest congressional investigations still happen on issues that aren’t “political lightning rods,” said Kriner. But as the oversight’s salience to voters increases, the administration is more likely to stonewall and Congress is more likely to grandstand. “All of those incentives are cutting against the type of oversight that we might think of in a really great Madisonian sense of checks and balances,” Kriner said.
Even on seemingly cold-button issues, administrations have grown less cooperative in recent years, leaving Congress with little recourse for rigorous investigative work.
“To give Congress a little bit of slack, we’ve had some extraordinary — especially in the Trump administration — we’ve had extraordinary efforts by the administration to assert executive privilege to refuse to turn over documents,” Kriner said. “Even if Congress wanted to do serious oversight, that’s going to make it a whole lot harder than it used to be.”