The House of Representatives voted on Tuesday night to refer Mark Meadows to federal prosecutors for criminal contempt of Congress. While Meadows, a former House member who served as President Donald Trump’s final chief of staff, had initially cooperated with the House January 6 committee, he reversed course soon after he received a public rebuke from Trump himself. Meadows’s decision to rebuff the commission drew the ire of its bipartisan leadership, who believe Meadows is still withholding key information about the White House’s involvement in the attack on Congress.
Not every member of Congress is so interested in scrutinizing the Trump White House’s actions on that fateful day. Most GOP lawmakers voted against the contempt resolution; Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger joined a unanimous Democratic Party to pass the measure by a 222–208 vote. One of the Republicans who voted against contempt was North Carolina Representative Dan Bishop, who offered something of a warning for the Democratic majority: Democrats who voted in favor of the referral would come to regret their decision down the road.
“The Democrats are setting a new bar,” Bishop said on the House floor. “Even while the handwriting is on the wall, may you enjoy the fruits. Let the contempt resolutions and criminal referrals flow [as] freely and quickly as a river. Merrick Garland. Ron Klain. Hunter Biden. Chuck Dolan. Marc Elias. Andrew Weissmann. Alejandro Mayorkas. Let them come. This is the choice that is being made by the Democrats.”
Bishop apparently referred to the likelihood that Republicans will take the House in next year’s midterm elections. He listed off a variety of people whom the GOP majority hopes to target with the chamber’s oversight authority if it regains power: the incumbent White House chief of staff, two Cabinet members, the president’s son, a well-connected Democratic P.R. executive, one of the top lawyers in the Mueller investigation, and the most prominent Democratic election attorney in the country. Bishop’s implication was that it would be Democrats’ fault if these figures came under the House GOP’s scrutiny.
There is little basis for believing that Bishop is making an empty threat, for the same reason that it’s not a particularly effective one. Threats are a contract of sorts: If you do something, I’ll do something to you. The implicit understanding is that if the action in question isn’t taken, the implied harm won’t be inflicted. But recent history shows how Republican lawmakers weaponized and abused their oversight powers long before Bishop threatened to do so.
For the first two years of Trump’s presidency, Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate. They weren’t very interested in looking into wrongdoing by Trump or other members of his administration, even when there were numerous indications that it was taking place. One area where some members readily used their oversight powers, however, was to go after the Russia investigation and those who had set it into motion. Most of these actions took place through the House Intelligence Committee; its then-chairman, Devin Nunes, is retiring from Congress after this term to join Trump’s new media operation.
It’s doubtful that Republicans would take a similarly laissez-faire approach to executive branch oversight if they win next November. To the contrary, they have expressed interest in a wide range of issues already. Some aren’t completely without merit: Lawmakers from both parties have demanded answers about the chaotic nature of the Afghanistan withdrawal over the summer. But others have a more partisan sheen. In September, a group of GOP members of the House Oversight Committee requested documents from an art gallery owner about his role in the sale of Hunter Biden’s paintings.
The younger Biden is no stranger to bad-faith GOP inquiries. Trump’s first impeachment, in 2019, came after Congress learned he had pressured the Ukrainian government to smear the elder Biden with corruption allegations related to his son, a Ukrainian energy company that Hunter had worked for while his father was vice president, and Joe Biden’s own role in pressuring Ukraine on an investigation into that company. The Burisma allegations never made much sense because Biden was pressuring a Ukrainian prosecutor to go harder, not easier, on the company. Even the GOP-led Senate Homeland Security Committee failed to turn up any evidence of wrongdoing on Biden’s part when it released a report on the matter last September.
So it would be unsurprising that the GOP might want to take another whack at the president’s troubled son after 2022, or go after any high-ranking Biden administration officials, or even try to target prominent people in the Democratic orbit. Top Republican lawmakers haven’t exactly hidden their ambitions to use congressional investigations to inflict political damage on their Democratic opponents. After four Americans died in a terrorist attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya in 2012, GOP lawmakers spent the next four years holding hearings and launching probes into the attack. Congress couldn’t be faulted for launching inquiries into an incident in which a U.S. ambassador died, of course, but it soon became obvious that its real target was then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
You don’t have to take my word for it that Republicans launched a half-dozen committee investigations into the Benghazi attack, including one by a select committee, to damage Clinton’s prospects in the 2016 presidential election. “Everybody though Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” a member of the House Republican leadership told Fox News in a 2015 interview. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought.” That member, California’s Kevin McCarthy, is—for now—the first in line to become speaker of the House if Republicans retake the chamber next year.
At this point you might be thinking that turnabout might be fair play after all of the Trump investigations and inquiries. That point might stand if Trump hadn’t abused power like fish drink water. He funneled personal favors and public funds through his family business, pressured law enforcement officials to harass his foes and go easy on his friends, recklessly lied about the integrity of American democracy when he feared defeat, and then used those lies to incite a rioting mob to attack Congress. He tried to overthrow the republic. If anything, Congress and the Biden administration have gone easy on him.
Still, the extreme likelihood that a GOP-controlled Congress might open a series of investigations on an exhaustive, and exhausting, array of fronts should actually make it easier for Democrats and their allies to continue to pursue their constitutional oversight duties, undeterred by Republican threats of reprisals to come. After all, Dan Bishop and his colleagues are going to launch their vengeance campaigns whether Democrats disband the January 6 commission or not. Republicans are more than willing to take what was done to them for legitimate reasons and return the favor to create grist for Fox News and Newsmax and One America News Network. They have done it before, and they cannot wait to do it again.