By Frank Bowman
I have already remarked on the absurdity of Mr. Trump’s latest assault on the FBI and the Department of Justice — the claim that a “spy” was planted in the Trump campaign by nefarious anti-Trump deep state actors. The allegation is bad enough, but Trump’s demand that the Justice Department both investigate it and disclose confidential information about an ongoing investigation is worse. That Mr. Trump would promote this pernicious nonsense is, sadly, unsurprising. But dangerous though this behavior is, one might be able to console oneself with the thought that Trump is a uniquely twisted soul whom the country will have an opportunity to vote out of office no later than 2020.
The more troublesome aspect of this story has been the response of the Republicans in charge of Congress, particularly those in the House. There is much to be said on this score, but today I’ll focus on just one point.
The White House has demanded that FBI Director Andrew Wray and a Justice Department representative produce material related to supposed FBI misconduct at a meeting to be attended by only two legislators — Republican Congressmen Devin Nunes and Trey Gowdy. No senators were invited (although three Republican senators have requested to be included.) And no Democrats from either house are to be allowed to be present or see the material.
In the era of Trump, we have so often had occasion to declare things “unprecedented” that the term is losing all effect. But this is truly unprecedented. Congress has investigated presidents and federal agencies many times. Oversight is a key congressional function. Some of those investigations have surely had partisan objectives. But even when the majority party in one or both houses embarked on investigations it hoped would pay political dividends, congress acted as a body. The majority party gets more members on the investigative committee and often more support staff. But both parties participate in the investigation, have access to all the relevant materials, and have a full opportunity to debate the evidence, vote on any conclusions, and publicize disagreements with any final conclusions.
I am old enough to remember the spirited, but procedurally meticulous and scrupulously even-handed, debates in the Senate and House committees investigating Watergate. The senators and representatives of that era demonstrated what it means for Congress to be a democratic, representative, deliberative body and their work stands in proud contrast to the tawdry behavior of the current Republican-dominated gaggle.
The spectacle we are witnessing here is the collapse of Congress as a co-equal branch of the American government. It is not merely that a subset of Republican House members have eagerly signed on to protect Donald Trump by promoting conspiracy theories. There will be unprincipled, intellectually dishonest, opportunists in any age and any party. The horror is that the institutional leadership in both House and Senate has supinely acquiesced in this vicious foolishness.
I say foolishness because, even for the congressional Republican party, this is astoundingly shortsighted behavior. Do Republicans imagine that they will retain their majority forever? And do they imagine that Democrats, having been treated as, in effect, a party of traitors unworthy of viewing and deliberating on evidence of supposed law enforcement corruption, will not respond in kind when the wheel turns? Forbearance by the Democrats would require more than human rectitude.
All of this is, or should be, achingly obvious to Republican congressional leadership. But in neither house has the leadership done any leading whatsoever. This should perhaps be no great surprise given that, in the Senate, majority leader McConnell has been an innovator in destroying the collaborative traditions of the Senate, and in the House, the Republican leadership since Dennis Hastert has effectively ruled out all cross-party legislative efforts. But even these blinkered partisans should exhibit either some appreciation of the historical role a strong, deliberative congress plays in American government or at least some miniscule degree of foresight concerning the retribution their own party will inevitably suffer.
If and when the wheel does turn and Republican congressmen reap what their confederates have sown, I will not shed a tear for them. They and their party will deserve every humiliation heaped upon them
But we should all weep for the lasting damage these thoughtless partisan Republicans are wreaking on Congress as an institution. A congress in which distrust is so deep that legislators of one party are unwilling even to share information with the other party and debate with them openly on matters of public importance is a failed body. And failure at that fundamental level will, in the most optimistic scenario, take many years to repair. It may not be repairable.
We should all remember that a functioning congress is the beating heart of American democracy. If it devolves into nothing more than a venue for factional warfare, our form of government is genuinely doomed.