An Impeachment Trial Will Be Good Practice for Actual Oversight

In The News Piece in The New Republic
Photo by Stephen Walker on Unsplash
Jan. 15, 2021

The New Republic reviewed the new book Congress Overwhelmed, which Lee Drutman co-edited.

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.”
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