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An Impeachment Trial Will Be Good Practice for Actual Oversight

Democrats in Congress should avoid the temptation to turn the page after Trump’s Senate trial. There’s still too much to investigate.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after the House voted to impeach President Donald Trump for the second time in little over a year

“We’re not looking backward, we’re looking forward” was 10 days ago. Remember? That was Hakeem Jeffries, the fifth-highest-ranking Democrat in House leadership and a potential future Speaker, should Nancy Pelosi ever step down or lose a leadership election.

Since Jeffries said those words, in response to questions about the president’s scandalous pressuring of Georgia election officials, the House of Representatives has impeached Donald Trump for the second time. Unlike his first impeachment, Trump seems fated, this time, to face an actual trial in the Senate—even if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delays it in order to subvert incoming president Joe Biden’s Cabinet confirmation process.

Regardless of what happens at the end of that trial, there will be a temptation, on the part of Democrats, who now enjoy complete control of the legislature and executive branch, to think of the impeachment as the closing of the book on the Trump era. They will want to return to the feeling Jeffries expressed at the beginning of the month: It is time to look forward, to put Donald Trump behind us, to focus on solving problems and not dwell in the recent past.

That would be a mistake. The best way to approach Donald Trump’s second impeachment is as practice for politicians who need to be reminded that they have real power to investigate abuses of power and hold those who perpetrated those abuses accountable for their actions.

When Trump was first impeached, I wrote about the ways in which the proceedings echoed the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, an erratic and loutish accidental president who fought bitterly against the prospect of multiracial democracy in the United States. If anything, this second Trump impeachment may resemble Johnson’s even more than the first did. Johnson notoriously whipped up crowds of white reactionaries with both oblique and specific threats against Radical Republican members of Congress. Senate moderates ended up acquitting him, in part because he’d soon be out of office anyway, and they wanted to move on. On his way out of office, free from the threat of early removal, Johnson issued a “full pardon and amnesty to all persons engaged in the late rebellion.”

But Congress is far more timid than it was in Johnson’s time. The Reconstruction-era House was remarkably industrious, fiercely protective of its power, and willing to use it aggressively to check the executive branch. It was able to do so because of its large Republican majorities—which it maintained in part by refusing to seat Democratic “members” from states that had very recently been involved in waging an insurrectionary war against the U.S.

Some House Democrats now seem (uncharacteristically) willing to take such extreme action again—not just left-leaning firebrands like freshman member Cori Bush, who has called for expelling any members who collaborated in the attack on the Capitol, but even ones like Representative Jason Crow, a prototypical suburban moderate Democrat, who has pledged to uncover which House members were “complicit” and “pursue appropriate remedies including expulsion and a prohibition from holding elective office for the rest of their lives.”

The cynically minded might point out that House Democrats only committed to holding the president and his enablers accountable for their misdeeds once they were directly and personally targeted, after spending the preceding year mostly demanding that voters take care of defeating him at the ballot box. But if it requires this level of personal fury to convince House Democrats to take their responsibilities seriously, I hope they can stay mad.

However, the actual job of retroactive oversight of the Trump presidency will require more than sustained righteous indignation. The proceedings cannot simply play out like a series of Aaron Sorkin–scripted showdowns and impassioned speeches on justice and democracy. Democrats need to do the much more quotidian task of investigation into just about every department. Once again, an actual Senate trial—involving the forced testimony of witnesses and detailed investigation into the organization of the Capitol attack and any connections between attackers and members of the Trump administration or members of Congress—will be a fine rehearsal for the task of investigating every other scandal and crime (including ones yet uncovered) of the Trump administration.

This is the sort of task Congress likes to believe it is good at, but what it actually tends to be good at in the modern era is asking rambling and disjointed questions at televised hearings that go nowhere. That institutional weakness, a recent book argues, is the inevitable result of Congress spending years disinvesting in its own capacity. Congress Overwhelmed, edited by Timothy M. LaPira, Lee Drutman, and Kevin R. Kosar, tells the story of a legislative body that has essentially outsourced its own ability to think about issues, let alone act on them, to outside agents like think tanks and industry lobbyists.

There are now fewer people serving on congressional staffs than there were in the 1970s; more of those people are personal staff rather than committee staff, and far more now work directly for leadership than for individual members and committees. And what that staff is doing has undergone a massive transformation. As Molly E. Reynolds writes in the book’s second chapter, “Prior to 1977, none of the employees in Senate leadership offices were primarily responsible for public relations. By 2015, nearly half of the Senate’s leadership staffers were doing communications work.”

This is a recipe for a legislative body that accomplishes very little beyond fundraising and electioneering. And it helps explain why, since taking control of the House, Democrats have allowed the White House to obstruct their oversight powers to an unprecedented degree. I say “allowed” because when Congress does little to enforce its own powers, it is, in effect, allowing that abuse. Nearly every executive agency instructed appointees not to cooperate with congressional investigations—and Congress responded by, to use one example, just waiting nine months for the Department of the Interior to respond to “members’ requests for more information about the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement director’s role in weakening offshore oil production standards.” That is from a story about how one particular agency completely defied congressional oversight for two years—by, among other things, responding to one request with a document printed in the font Wingdings. That agency apparently faced no consequences for its obstruction. (To his credit, House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva promises in that article to continue investigating Trump’s Interior Department even after Trump leaves office.)

Similarly, Congress spent years failing to get Trump’s taxes, failing to compel testimony from administration officials, failing to punish people who gave false testimony, and generally being terrified of issuing subpoenas. After Democrats bragged about the oversight they built into the corporate bailout portion of the Cares Act, they never even appointed a chairperson of their Congressional Oversight Commission. The strategy of waiting for someone else—the press, law enforcement, his bankers and business partners, Vice President Mike Pence, Robert Muller, voters—to nail Donald Trump at long last was not just a failure in political terms, but one that allowed a lot of people in his orbit to get away with a lot of things.

These failures have ideological sources, including moderate Democrats’ constant fear of being seen as too partisan, but they are also a result of the fact that it has been too long since anyone in congressional leadership was actually interested in investing in Congress’s own ability to conduct oversight. A new Congress and a new administration should be an opportunity for the legislative branch to reassert its authority and begin the work of rebuilding its own capacity. Donald Trump’s second impeachment is a good start, not an end goal.