“Can you print out my hard drive?”
That was the question my boss on the National Security Council had for me one summers day in 1997. I was working as “Director of Global Environmental Affairs” that lovely July day. Impressive title, until I tell you that on the NSC there were directors, senior directors, and assistants to the president. Regardless, I was really enjoying my summer tour in D.C. You can’t — or at least you shouldn’t — walk through the White House gate every day without tingling a bit. It was an amazing place. You are literally enclosed in history and it was a thrilling place to work.
Which is how I ended up with about 40 stacks of papers all over the floor, the contents of a hard drive in hard copy. Why would my boss make this request from me? It turns out that summer day that the Republicans on the Senate committee that deals with the environment had decided to harass (heard that word recently?) the Democrats dealing with environment in general — and climate change in particular — and to try to inhibit their ability to work by asking for an endless stream of documents. We were required to turn over, for the purposes of oversight, any document, file, record, hard copy, etc., of any White House discussion about climate change. My boss was not the most computer-savvy and therefore he asked me to print out the aforementioned hard drive. This included both classified and unclassified files, all the way from public statements to Top Secret SCI, a very high level of clearance.
The reason for the request was not really oversight — we were very open about what we were doing — but the folks on the other side of the aisle really wanted to slow down any environmental action, or at least that was my view. A couple of things that we provided were taken out of context and appeared in GOP advertisements, trying to make the administration look bad. My boss was not especially irritated by the “oversight” effort, saying that it was just politics as usual with Bill Clinton in the White House and the Republicans in charge over on Capitol Hill. It bugged me though.
I tell this story not because I’m still bitter, but in contrast to what the House Dems are now asking of the Trump administration. Recently we saw requests for records from the Democratic majority in the House for documents and other things for over 80 individuals, and the president announced it as harassment on a scale never before seen. Well, it’s been seen before, Mr. President. And in this case, your friends – to use the term widely – have demonstrated a history of criminal and/or unethical behavior. So, I’d gently suggest, Mr. Trump, that you climb down from your high horse and remember, as you often told us after 2016, that elections have consequences.
There is an irony that the oversight function of Congress was not always obvious. The Founders don’t really talk about what we consider oversight. The thinking was, at least to some degree, that a free and open press would provide the bright light of scrutiny to executive branch actions.
Does this mean that we are forever doomed to cycles of partisan oversight? Could be. But we have been better in the past and perhaps we can return to that higher standard. During WWII then-Sen. Harry Truman ran a Senate committee overseeing the war effort. With a Democrat in the White House, fellow Dem Truman hosted several hundred hearings looking into alleged war profiteering. Truman put country before party, which is not only the noble thing to do, it was the right thing to do. And it still is.
Whether serving at the federal, state, or local levels of government, our elected public servants should be open in doing their jobs while being relentless and balanced in conducting oversight. It is perhaps a pipe dream, but I’d hope that we can be a bit more like Truman and less like partisan hacks. Are the current Democratic inquiries mere politics? The indictments, guilty pleas, and prison sentences would appear to indicate that there is smoke and fire in the Trump White House. Oversight is a vital function, even as it is ripe for abuse. But in general, we should support our elected officials keeping an eye on one another.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.