By Former Republican Congressmen Tom Coleman and Mickey Edwards
We have now learned that for more than a year the Trump Administration has been allowing officials who have been denied security clearance to nonetheless have access to top secret government documents, potentially a crime and in any case a cavalier disregard for the nation’s safety.
There has been plenty of criticism leveled at the White House, and properly so, but at least one group of Americans had seemed undisturbed by this slip-shod approach to safeguarding the nation’s top secrets. The majority party in Congress continues to too often view its role as presidential enabler rather than the branch of government empowered by the Constitution and required by law to keep a check on the executive branch and to use its own formidable powers to ensure that such blatant disregard for the laws is brought to a halt. That is one of the constitutional responsibilities every member of Congress has assumed when taking the oath of office.
Belatedly, after a long silence, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Congressman Trey Gowdy have decided to investigate what Ryan has described as “a broken system”. But in fact the “system” is not broken. The FBI did conduct the requisite thorough investigations of the President’s nominees; it did report to the Administration that some of the people they investigated were not qualified for a security clearance. The system worked as it was supposed to work. The problem was failure by the Administration to obey the law. That is what needs investigating and there is as yet no indication that the Congress understands that. That, in fact, is the bigger problem: Congress seems generally uninterested in serious ongoing oversight about much of the executive branch’s activities.
The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 requires all House and Senate committees to exercise “continuous watchfulness” over the programs and agencies under their jurisdiction. “Continuous” is the operative word. In recent years, however, Congress, under both parties, has shunted its oversight responsibilities to a back burner unless as a transparently political tool to undermine a President of the other party.
Both the Senate Majority Leader and Speaker Ryan should act decisively to put Congress back on a strong oversight path, using all of the Congress’s powers -- hearings, investigations and the power of the purse.
The current problem – the Administration’s disregard for the laws affecting access to classified information -- is only part of the bigger problem of Congress’s failure to do its job. Action steps must not only demonstrate to the American people that their elected representatives recognize the seriousness of exposing our nation’s intelligence information to individuals who are not qualified to review such documents, but that Congress is ready to function as the fully separate and independent institution the Constitution meant it to be.
The question to be answered by the congressional leadership is this: Is Congress a watchdog or has it simply become the lap dog of the president?
Tom Coleman is a former Republican Congressman from Missouri and has served as an adjunct professor at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, and at American University.
Mickey Edwards is a former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma and has taught at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.