What keeps Al Franken up at night? The Senator from Minnesota offered Netroots Nation a peek into his psyche at their annual convention last weekend, accusing the GOP of preparing “witch hunts” to bring down the Obama administration. Why, Franken warned, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) had plans to double his staff once he takes the chair of the House Oversight Committee! It falls to Byron York to school Franken on the rules, history, and just common sense:
Issa planning to double his staff? Well yes, that’s what happens when a party takes over the House. Since 1995, the practice of the oversight committee has been to have a two-to-one ratio of majority to minority staff. When Democrats took control after winning the House in 2006, they doubled their staff, while the losing Republicans cut theirs in half. If Republicans win in 2010, they will double their staff and Democrats will cut theirs in half. That’s the way it works.
Maybe Franken slept through the explanation during a Senate orientation session, so let’s not be too hard on him for that. However, Franken should have at least studied the role of Congress in checking executive power and investigating its abuses. York explains this function to him, as carefully and slowly as possible:
“We have seen what happens when Republicans take control of Congress with a Democratic president,” Franken told the Netroots group, “and it ain’t pretty.” In that reference to the Clinton years, he was suggesting that scandal and impeachment will follow a Republican win in November. But that is a misreading of the past. The extraordinary nature of the Clinton scandals was more the result of the independent counsel law than GOP control of Congress. Does anyone believe the Republican House would have impeached Bill Clinton in 1998 without an independent counsel’s report as justification? These days, with the independent counsel law long gone, what Democrats are worried about is not impeachment but rather aggressive oversight of a Democratic administration.
The workings of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform have long been a mix of legitimate oversight and partisan wrangling. It has been that way under Democrats and it has been that way under Republicans. But since Democrats generally don’t want to investigate Democratic presidents and Republicans generally don’t want to investigate Republican presidents, the committee is most effective when opposing parties control the House and the White House. That’s the simple reason the public would benefit if Darrell Issa and the GOP were running the committee — no matter what Al Franken says.
Maybe the better question would be: why does Al hate the Constitution?
In fact, what York describes is exactly why divided government is as popular among independents as it is. That’s not a Constitutional function, of course, as the Constitution makes no mention of political parties. They designed the federal government with three coequal and competing branches that would guard their prerogatives jealously in order to prevent a tyranny with an overpowerful executive, or mob rule through an overpowerful Congress. That effort is predicated on both branches watching the other, but as York points out, neither party does it well (or at all) when they control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The best way to make the balancing act successful has been to ensure that a President faces a Congress controlled by the opposing party.
If the Obama administration has done nothing wrong, oversight won’t be a problem. Without the corrosive independent-counsel law allowing Congress to escape accountability for oversight, Issa and his panel will have to account for their behavior to the voters, as it should be. It sounds as if Franken fears oversight less than what that oversight will find, and I doubt he’s the only Democrat to suffer that anxiety, either.