Why you should care
Because all the president’s men will come under more scrutiny.
The nominee stumbled and bumbled his way through questions such as “Have you ever tried a jury trial?” The White House’s recent pick for a lifetime appointment as a federal judge, Matthew Petersen, withdrew after being humiliated by Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana. Then a Senate committee rejected a White House nominee to lead the Export-Import Bank, with two Republicans crossing party lines to spike former U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett.
Those December developments were overshadowed by a landmark $1.5 trillion tax cut, as President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress linked arms on their chief legislative goal. But they also serve as foreshadowing for the year ahead. The relationship between the Trump administration and the congressional GOP is about to get rockier, with looming midterm elections bringing tougher oversight of the U.S. commander in chief.
Love him or hate him, most congressional Republicans see Trump as a means for accomplishing long-held goals like cutting taxes, eradicating Obamacare and installing conservatives in the courts. (Well, at least conservatives who know what the inside of a courtroom looks like.) But we’ve arrived at an election year, which means big-deal legislating is all but done — sorry, infrastructure fans — and members will focus doubly on keeping their jobs. Endangered Republicans see a president with middling approval ratings nationwide and plunging support in the suburbs, where many crucial races will be decided, so they will be eager to build an independent brand.
Don’t expect Republicans to call for impeachment, or make a big hairy deal out of their investigations into Russian meddling and the 2016 elections. Inviting a ferocious presidential tweet and turning off the Republican base they need to win re-election is not wise. But Trump administration officials will be fair game.
Faiz Shakir, national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is battling the Trump administration on several fronts, says he expects pushback from congressional Republicans on everything from surveillance policy to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s taxpayer-funded helicopter rides. “There’s a whole variety of Trump officials who literally have no oversight over them, and that’s one area, if I was a Republican lawmaker trying to distance myself from Trump, I’d try to exert some more oversight,” Shakir says. The key, he adds, is to be “perceived as tough, whether or not they truly are tough.”
The stiffened spines won’t belong only to moderates representing swing districts. The far conservative wing of the GOP has its own qualms with the administration. A House Republican aide, who asked not to be named in order to give a frank assessment of the year ahead, says Congress likely will not bother “Cabinet secretaries who are going strong with conservative goals” such as Zinke, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. “But folks like [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions, who in the first year has frustrated conservatives and Republicans in Congress (irrespective of Trump stances) — from Lois Lerner and the IRS targeting scandal to Jim Comey and the politicization of the FBI — will assuredly receive more scrutiny,” the aide says.
What would tougher oversight look like? Republicans can grill Cabinet secretaries and nominees in uncomfortable hearings while unearthing embarrassing scandals via investigations and document requests. But nothing too rough on the White House.
Expect Republican lawmakers to search for a critical vote or committee hearing YouTube moment to declare independence from their party or the administration. “You really only need one or two things in your shopping cart to be able to tell voters you’re not a rubber stamp, because voters don’t want rubber stamps,” says Chip Lake, a Republican political consultant in Georgia. With a Democratic election wave building, GOP incumbents will need all the help they can get. “Even when you ride that wave perfectly, you can only really change what’s going on at home by 2 to 3 [percentage] points, max,” Lake says. “And in some districts, that might be enough. But we don’t know how big that wave is going to be.”
If the wave is big enough to give impeachment-minded Democrats the House, the ensuing flood of oversight will make this year look like a lawn sprinkler.