Democrats, a few Republicans team up to press for oversight of Trump administration

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Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, accompanied by accompanied by Environmental Protection Agency Chief Financial Officer Holly Greaves, (left), testifies on the EPA FY2019 budget at a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 26, 2018. (Andrew Harnik/AP Photo)

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, accompanied by accompanied by Environmental Protection Agency Chief Financial Officer Holly Greaves, (left), testifies on the EPA FY2019 budget at a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 26, 2018. (Andrew Harnik/AP Photo)

Democrats are accusing their Republican counterparts on Capitol Hill of giving the Trump administration a pass when it comes to congressional oversight. Some Republicans from the Delaware Valley region think they have a point.

The GOP controls both chambers of Congress, meaning Republicans wield the gavels and control hearing schedules and the witness lists. Those are vital tools for exercising oversight and pressing for answers from the Trump administration. While most in the party contend they’re doing their duty, Democrats — including Philadelphia U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle — literally laugh off those claims.

“I laugh because there has been little to no oversight of this administration,” Boyle said. “You have some Republican chairs who have acted like they’re almost parts of this administration, and oversight is the last thing that they’re interested in.”

That’s why many Democrats and a small but growing number of Republicans are calling for legislation to insulate special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired by President Donald Trump as the former FBI chief continues his investigation into Russia interference in the 2016 presidential election. At least one bill has cleared a Senate committee.

That legislation, said Boyle, could actually insulate Trump from his worst instincts, and prevent him from getting rid of the special counsel.

“In my view, [firing Mueller is] an impeachable offense, because it would be obstructing a criminal investigation into this, a president, and to a number of his associates,” Boyle said. “I am concerned that the president may do that. He’s certainly someone who’s exhibited incredibly erratic decision making.”

Members of the GOP are growing frustrated with the Mueller probe. Saying he wants Trump to let the investigation run its course, U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur added that bills to insulate the special counsel are all about politics — and unnecessary.

“Every indication that I’ve gotten is that [Mueller’s] almost done,” MacArthur said. “So I think this is somebody trying to make a point, as opposed to actually get something done. Before this bill ever made it through even the House, much less the House and Senate, [Mueller’s] going to be done with his work.”

At this point, more than a year into the investigation, MacArthur is also a tad annoyed with the pace.

“I think it’s taking longer than it should, and it’s going off in a number of different directions, although I think they’re trying to keep it focused,” he said. “It’s time to let them get it done.”

As for the broader criticism that the GOP is giving Trump and his administration a pass, MacArthur said “Trump resistance” — inside and outside Congress — is bad for the nation.

“I think there are some people who are crying out for more and more investigations, because they’re trying to make this president unable to do his job,” he  said. “That’s not healthy for the country.”

Oversight of Cabinet secretaries

Republican U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance, who represents Central New Jersey, said he could support one of the proposals to protect the special counsel. But he hasn’t fully studied it, in part, because GOP leaders oppose them so the likelihood of a vote is remote. But Lance bemoaned the tit for tat on Twitter and cable news between the president and the former FBI director, James Comey.

“Mr. Mueller should continue his investigation, and I support his investigation. Regarding the back and forth between Donald Trump and James Comey, I find it unattractive on both sides,” Lance said.

Democrats also accuse GOP leaders of giving the administration a pass when it comes to issues such as the  president having foreign dignitaries and lobbyists stay at a Trump hotel just down the street from the White House. Experts question whether that could break the Constitution’s emoluments clause that prohibits  presidents from profiting from foreign governments. Still, Lance said, those cases are best handled by the courts, not Congress.

“There are cases now in the judiciary, and I have great confidence in the judiciary,” he said. “I think that issue is likely to go to the Supreme Court, because the Supreme Court has never ruled on that issue.”

Then there’s oversight of Cabinet secretaries. At least three have been accused of spending lavishly on their offices and taking first-class travel instead of flying coach. Lance and retiring Pennsylvania Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello recently grilled Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, over claims that his agency doled out huge bonuses to his top advisers; put a private phone booth, costing more than $40,000, in his office; and got a sweetheart deal on housing from a D.C. lobbyist.

GOP lawmakers haven’t questioned other administration officials to a similar degree — and Costello said that makes sense.

“So, some of this stuff, you’ve really got to go through it with a fine-tooth comb,” Costello said. “Sometimes the headlines can be misleading, but Pruitt’s of a different ilk on some of this stuff. There’s no question about it.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent of the Lehigh Valley, who also is retiring soon, said his party is being a bit hypocritical when it comes to oversight, especially on all the allegations swirling about lavish spending from members of the president’s Cabinet.

“Clearly, had the shoe been on the other foot, we’d be waving a bloody shirt and there’d be hearings,” Dent said. “Unfortunately, what I’ve noticed with both parties over the years, is that both sides kind of abide by this notion of separation of parties and a lot less separation of powers.”

Whether it’s the Russia probe or the reports of lavish spending by Cabinet secretaries, Democrats have no plans to let up on their calls for robust oversight heading into November’s midterm elections. And a part of their pitch is becoming: Put us in power so we can hold the administration accountable.   

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