In January 1995, Republicans took control of the US House – first time in 40 years. Bill Clinton was President, dogged by scandals. The temptation was to give anger free rein and vent. Instead, Republicans did real oversight, passed the “Contract with America,” and stayed focused. They must do that now.
During Bill Clinton’s final four years, Newt Gingrich was House Speaker and Republicans controlled the chamber. As a staffer, my job was chief counsel to the largest part of the House Oversight Committee. We could have gone anywhere, had an open horizon, or channeled public rage, like now.
Why? Because Americans were downright disgusted, unhappy, disaffected, and felt their government was unresponsive, especially the Justice Department, FBI, ATF, and particularly the White House.
How bad was it? Bad. Scandals that predated the election, and ones which followed, were outsized, infuriating, political, legal, professional, personal – and somehow unending. They included confirmation that China had tried to influence the presidential and congressional elections with illicit contributions, so-called “Chinagate,” along with other campaign finance violations – a major investigation.
They included multiple allegations by women, ranging from affairs (which seem well documented) to Juanita Broderick’s rape allegation of Clinton when he was 32 and the Arkansas AG; she was a young nursing home administrator.
Paula Jones and Kathleen Wiley lodged credible assault allegations. They included Whitewater (the Clinton’s abuse of power and profit from illicit real estate investments), Travelgate (the Clinton’s abuse of power and misuse of White House personnel), “Filegate” (the Clinton’s using FBI files to punish enemies), and illicit profits in “cow futures.”
In general, they included mis, mal, and nonfeasance across the federal government, “sale of the Lincoln bedroom” for political contributions, misuse of military personnel, perverse use of federal assets such as pushing the Waco siege that killed 76 persons, 25 children – and of course, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, complete with transparent lies, dishonoring the Oval Office, perjury, and impeachment.
But before all that, before impeachment fever took hold of Congress, a new and risky epidemic these days, we did real and substantive oversight – deep dives into issues that mattered to the American people, how the drug crisis had surged (as it is now, only worse), and why the defense department, law enforcement agencies, and multijurisdictional task forces were not being supported (leading to crime spikes).
We looked hard at fiscal policy, badly run (and therefore fundamentally dangerous) foreign policy and operations, and why agencies like NASA, WHCA (White House Communications Agency), CBP, INS (then- Immigration and Naturalization Service), elements of the Defense Department, HHS (Health and Human Services), and the intelligence community were unfocused, wasteful, and unable to stay on mission.
That said, public corruption was an issue – then as now. That is an issue that trumps all others, goes to the heart of oversight, and is at the core of “keeping a republic” and assuring legitimacy. Public corruption supersedes mismanagement, waste, operational errors, ideological preoccupations, and blunders.
Balance is key – which is why we led off in 1995 with oversight hearings into government waste and mismanagement, failure to support anti-drug messages, law enforcement, effective treatment, and positive outcomes for the nation.
We went from there into national security and foreign policy failures, and pressed legislation for correction. As an overarching element, we pressed for smaller government, less waste, more accountability, produced criminal referrals, demanded people get held accountable.
But we also kept one eye on the public corruption, and elevated it – based on deep investigations, hundreds of document production requests, interviews with whistleblowers, subpoenas, and genuine case-building which Congress sometimes forgets is what … builds and makes a credible case.
Those investigations looked hard at the Waco assault (on well-armed religious zealots, held up in a compound) and how the White House and Justice pushed that outcome, ending in disaster. We did a deep dive into foreign election finance (illegal), accelerated (illegal) naturalization in 1996, and ultimately investigated a number of White House, Justice, and FBI actions that were indefensible.
In the end, another committee took the special counsel’s findings, real evidence, and foundation stones for a bona fides impeachment, and impeached Clinton in the House, action that died in the Senate. Whether that was necessary or not, positive or negative, followed or set precedent, is secondary.
The real point is that time is always short, serious investitive work always necessary – and the targets of solid investigation must be hit in priority order to make good oversight. And what is good oversight? It is getting facts out, aligning them with the law, educating the American people, proving or disproving their serious concerns – and correcting what can be corrected with truth, criminal referrals, and data.
As Republicans again take control of the House, balance – and focus – is going to be key. More allegations of utter failure in the federal government – especially at the White House, Justice Department, FBI, Homeland Security, and in other quarters flashes red now than in 1995.
That said, showing good and honest oversight can be done, doggedly but with due process – is often as important as the outcome. A win would be getting facts out, proving bad acts, forcing correction, and setting up accountability – for the moment, for current leaders, and for 2024.
A missed opportunity, one easy to indulge when the public is mad, is a set of “fast and dirty,” “pounce” or “blame” panels, allowing House members to vent and demonstrate their anger, not changing much. Real oversight is the determination to get facts, educate, and allocate responsibility – then let the chips fall. We are overdue for that. Americans now have a chance for sunlight – we just need to get it right.
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