Skip to main content
FEBRUARY 5, 2019 - WASHINGTON, DC: President Donald Trump delivered the State of the Union address, with Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, at the Capitol in Washington, DC on February 5, 2019. Doug Mills/Pool via REUTERS - RC111FD41E00
Report

How the House should investigate the Trump administration

Lessons from the most important House probes since WWII

Summary

With the 116th House of Representatives in Democratic hands, many are wondering what they will target with their newfound oversight powers. In this paper, Paul Light examines the most significant House investigations after World War II, drawing on this history to identify lessons for developing an impactful probe. Light also explores the potential for high-quality action by the new House majority, and puts forth specific reforms to improve the overall effectiveness of future House investigations.

 

Table of Contents
Introduction
I. The Boehner Resume
II. A brief recap of House engagement
III. House history
IV. Habits of investigation
V. Investigating with consequence
VI. Improving investigations

Introduction

Democrats recaptured the House in November 2018 in part by promising to aim a “subpoena canon” at Trump administration misconduct. “We have our boxing gloves on,” incoming House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said of the emerging agenda and her party leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “I’m ready. And so is Nancy.” There were even rumors on Election Day that Republicans had a secret list of the targets they might have to defend, though the list itself appears to be a knockoff of a spring 2018 National Journal article titled, “100 Things Democrats Could Investigate if They Take Power.”

Author

Democrats do not want for investigatory targets and platforms. After all, they inherited control of more than 100 committees and subcommittees and began planning their first hearings long before Election Day. House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) was ready to launch a broad investigation of the 2016 Trump campaign with or without special counsel Robert Mueller’s report in hand; Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) was developing an agenda for an early hearing on Matthew G. Whitaker’s appointment as acting attorney general; House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) was considering a probe of Ivanka Trump’s use of a private email server; Financial Services Committee Chair Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) was considering a review of Trump’s foreign investments; and Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) was laying the groundwork for releasing the president’s tax returns.

Many of these investigations are unlikely to produce significant effects, however.1 According to my past Brookings Institution research on the 100 most important House, Senate, and blue-ribbon investigations conducted between 1945 and 2012, just five of the 31 House probes on the list created very significant impact, another five created moderate impact, and 21 created little or no impact at all. As this report will show, impact is the product of the investigation done well. Bright lights, perp walks, and brutal questioning are no substitutes for thoroughness, determination, persistence, and a commitment to careful fact finding. The quality of investigations is not strained—it flows from the faithful pursuit of truth regardless of the party in charge.

“The quality of investigations is not strained—it flows from the faithful pursuit of truth regardless of the party in charge.”

As this report will also show, investigatory quality is tied to resources, staffing, and strategy. House Democrats inherited an investigatory process weakened by partisanship, incompetence, staff turnover, and conflicts of interest. It is now their duty to rebuild it by focusing on the broad problems that have undermined faithful execution of the laws, testing the vulnerability of new programs before they are enacted, improving investigatory practice, and assuring that investigatory institutions such as the Congressional Budget Office, Congressional Research Service, federal Offices of Inspectors General, and Government Accountability Office have adequate funding to hire the staff and produce the data and expertise needed for high-quality investigations.

I. The Boehner Resume

Democrats have framed their investigatory agenda in glowing constitutional terms. “We have a constitutional responsibility for oversight,” Pelosi said in November 2018. “This doesn’t mean we go looking for a fight. But it means that if we see a need to go forward, we will.”

Pelosi is right—Congress must do its job. However, Pelosi also knows there is more than one way to do the job. Former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) also extolled the constitutional value of oversight but saw investigations as a way to dismantle government, not improve it. Having promised to do “everything—and I mean everything,” to stop the Obama administration, Boehner weaponized the investigatory process for maximum political damage.

The onslaught began in June 2011 with hearings on the administration’s “dysfunction, negligence and mismanagement” in making a renewable energy loan to the Solyndra Corporation, and its negligence in the deaths of “countless innocent Mexican citizens” and a U.S. Border Patrol agent during the Justice Department “gunwalking” sting operation. The investigatory onslaught continued in 2012 with early forays into what would become a six-year probe of the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups, the first hearings on Secret Service misconduct, and planning for a long-running investigation of the Benghazi terrorist attacks that featured Hillary Clinton’s marathon before the House Select Committee on Benghazi in October 2015.

Hillary Clinton listens to a question as she testifies before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, on Capitol Hill in Washington October 22, 2015. The congressional committee is investigating the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, when Clinton was the secretary of state. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - TB3EBAM1CG6FG
The long-running investigation of the Benghazi terrorist attacks—featuring Hillary Clinton’s marathon hearing before the House Select Committee on Benghazi—was one example of the weaponization of oversight during the tenure of former Speaker John Boehner. (Credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

House Democrats can hardly be faulted for wanting a bit of payback after six years on the back bench as Republicans focused on the Obama administration’s failures and another two years of frustration as Republicans ignored increasing evidence of Trump administration malfeasance. Neither can they be criticized for remembering Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) 2012 promise to deny Obama a second term as they think about defeating Trump in 2020.

Nevertheless, House Democrats would do well to remember that Obama won re-election despite McConnell’s promise even as they remind themselves of their longstanding commitment to good-government statutes like the Ethics in Government Act and the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Moreover, Democrats are in the business of rebuilding these days, not dismantling. They created much of the government infrastructure that has come undone in the recent cascade and bear a special obligation to target all causes of the Trump administration’s management and policy failures—not just the ones coming from the Oval Office.

House Democrats must also accept their obligation to fill investigatory gaps created in the Senate as Democrats weigh their presidential prospects in 2020 and Republicans prepare to defend 22 seats during the same year. The Senate may yet find bipartisan renewal in an investigation of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, but is likely to let the House take center stage in reviewing the Trump administration’s performance.

“The House investigatory agenda seems clear. Americans want Congress to make sure the president executes the laws faithfully and is held accountable for his actions.”

The House investigatory agenda seems clear. Americans want Congress to make sure the president executes the laws faithfully and is held accountable for his actions. “Americans expect that their food will be safe, their cars will be safe, that their bridges won’t collapse, that criminals will go to jail,” Justin Rood, director of the Congressional Oversight Initiative at the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight (POGO), said of the public’s appetite for investigations. “I think we’re seeing alarms go off across the federal government for programs that are going off track, not being properly administered, and no one is asking the right questions.”

The question for this report, therefore, is not whether House Democrats should investigate—they have no institutional choice. Rather, this report will ask how the House as an investigatory body can shape its work for maximum impact on government performance. Based on further analysis of my list of House investigations, this report will look for patterns in the House probes that achieved the greatest impact on the faithful execution of the laws.

II. A brief recap of House engagement

The House launched the nation’s first great congressional investigation in 1792 to explore Gen. Arthur St. Clair’s bloody defeat at the Battle of Wabash, but the Senate was the chamber of choice for significant investigations for the next 150 years. Although the House handled President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment in 1868, the Senate took the lead on national crises such as John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, the Union Army defeat at Bull Run, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction, the sinking of the Titanic, the Tea Pot Dome scandal, the 1929 stock market crash, and World War II procurement fraud.

As House members became more attached to their careers, however, so did their investigatory interest. Led by the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC), the chamber’s investigatory engines roared to life after WWII with a persistent focus on government corruption and misconduct.

The House began building its investigatory resume in 1947 with back-to-back probes of communists in Hollywood and government before accelerating into the 1950s with investigations of IRS corruption in 1951, Department of Justice misconduct in 1952, the Sputnik satellite launch and Sherman Adams scandal in 1957, and munitions industry lobbying by retired military officers and quiz show rigging in 1959. Although the House took on broader topics in the 1950s and 1960s, including a particularly powerful probe of Ku Klux Klan “terroristic activities” in 1965, it built its investigatory muscle on relatively short investigations of the president in power.

After the Democrats increased their majority in the 1974 midterm elections just three months after Richard Nixon resigned, which flipped 49 Republican seats and gave the Democrats a two-thirds House majority, the House began to change its investigatory tone toward broader government operations. Like the class of 2018, the class of 1974 demanded a chance to be heard, whether in the investigatory process, the House leadership, or the policy agenda, and helped drive the number of House “regular-order” oversight days up from just 290 days and 12 percent of all committee days in 1973, to 459 days and 18 percent in 1975, and 537 days and 18 percent in 1977.

The House began its post-Watergate resurgence with hearings on welfare fraud in 1975 before turning to a South Korean lobbying scandal in 1977, Superfund fraud and abuse in 1981, the Savings and Loan crisis and Iran-Contra scandal both in 1987, and the Housing and Urban Development scandal in 1989. This first surge ended just before Bill Clinton won the presidency with an investigation of persistent rumors that Ronald Reagan’s first presidential campaign had conspired with Iran to avoid the release of U.S. hostages in an “October surprise” that would have secured Jimmy Carter’s re-election.

Even as its agenda expanded to include broad concerns, the House (under both parties) also kept what political scientist Joel D. Aberbach calls a watchful eye on the federal government through the annual appropriation and authorization process. It also enhanced its investigatory staff, reformed its committee system, created the Congressional Budget Office, strengthened the Government Accountability Office, established quasi-independent Offices of Inspector General to audit and investigate government from the inside, and recruited a new generation of talented committee chairs such as Tom Davis (R-Va.), John Dingell (D-Mich.), Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

The explosion of the Marine Corps building in Beirut, Lebanon, created a large cloud of smoke that was visible from miles away.
The establishment of key oversight bodies and a new generation of talented committee chairs allowed the House to expand its investigatory agenda, including the Beirut barracks bombing in 1983. (Credit: U.S. Marine Corps/Wikipedia).

With these new resources in hand, the House expanded its investigatory agenda to include investigations of the Beirut barracks bombing in 1983, the savings and loan crisis in 1987, tobacco industry practices in 1993, the Waco siege in 1995, worries about a year 2000 (Y2K) computer meltdown in 1998, conduct of the Iraq war starting in 2003, and steroid abuse among major league baseball players and Hurricane Katrina, both in 2005. The House also continued to pursue government misconduct and corruption but became increasingly interested in threats to the faithful execution of the laws. “Trump may think he has the power to hire and fire whomever he pleases,” Nadler said only days after the midterm elections, “but he cannot take such action if it is determined that it is for the purposes of subverting the rule of law and obstructing justice. If he abuses his office in such as fashion, then there will be consequences.”

III. House history

The House came to order on Jan. 3, 2019, with more standing committees and subcommittees than the Senate and a bigger appetite for significant investigations. The House trailed the Senate in the number of congressional probes between the end of WWII and Nixon’s resignation but outpaced the Senate in the number of significant investigations conducted between his departure and the end of 2012.2 (See Table 1 for the inventory of major House investigations after WWII.)

Table 1: Major House investigations, 1945-2012

1. Communists in the Motion Picture Industry 1947 21. Iran-Contra Arms Sales 1987
2. Communists in Government 1948 22. Housing and Urban Development Scandal 1989
3. Bureau of Internal Revenue Corruption 1951 23. Vietnam Prisoners of War/Missing in Action* 1991
4. Justice Department Operations 1952 24. 1980 Reagan Campaign “October Surprise” 1992
5. Sherman Adams Influence Peddling 1957 25. Tobacco Industry Practices 1993
6. Munitions Industry Lobbying 1959 26. Clinton Misconduct & Impeachment 1995
7. Quiz Show Rigging 1959 27. Arms Shipments to Bosnia 1996
8. Billie Sol Estes Fraud* 1962 28. Y2K Technology Glitch 1998
9. Government Information Mismanagement (Spin) 1963 29. Enron Collapse 2001
10. Ku Klux Klan “Terroristic” Activities 1965 30. White House Energy Taskforce 2001
11. Conduct of the Vietnam War* 1966 31. Conduct of the Iraq War* 2003
12. Energy Shortages* 1973 32. Abramoff Lobbying Abuses 2004
13. Nixon Misconduct & Impeachment* 1973 33. Hurricane Katrina 2005
14. Nixon Pardon 1974 34. Steroid Abuse in Major League Baseball 2005
15. Intelligence Agency Abuses* 1975 35. Mine Safety 2007
16. Welfare Fraud 1975 36. 2008 Financial Crisis* 2008
17. South Korean Lobbying 1977 37. Stimulus Oversight* 2009
18. Superfund Misconduct 1981 38. Gulf Oil Spill 2010
19. Beirut Marine Barracks Bombing 1983 39. Fast and Furious Gun-Walking Operation 2011
20. Savings and Loan Crisis 1987 40. Solyndra Corporation Loan Guarantee 2011
* Near-simultaneous House and Senate investigations excluded from the data analysis in this report. These investigations are not included in the data analysis for this report because the investigatory impacts cannot be easily attributed to either the House or the Senate.

Perhaps fittingly, the House began its post-Watergate resurgence with a short investigation of Gerald Ford’s decision to grant Nixon a full, free, and absolute pardon for all offenses associated with Watergate. The inquiry would have made the list of major House investigations solely because of its allegations about White House destruction of evidence, but bears particular merit because it brought Ford before the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice to deny claims that he had promised the pardon to get Nixon to resign. “I am not here to make history, but to report on history,” Ford said of his decision to appear on his own volition. After assuring the subcommittee that “there never was at any time any agreement whatsoever concerning a pardon to Mr. Nixon if he were to resign and I were to become President,” Ford tried to change the narrative about his role in Watergate:

“I repeat, and I repeat with emphasis, the purpose of the pardon was to try and get the United States, the Congress, the President, and the American people, focusing on the serious problems we have both at home and abroad, and I was absolutely convinced then as I am now that if we had had … a trial, the conviction, and anything else that transpired after that, that the attention of the President, the Congress, and the American people would have been diverted from the problems that we have to solve.”

The pardon investigation did not spark the Democrats’ post-Watergate investigatory surge, but represents two patterns that will shape the current House agenda in coming years, and not just because a pardon may yet be on the agenda as discussions of indictments and impeachment echo through the Capitol Rotunda.

First, the next two years will be dominated by what political scientists call fire-alarm investigations focusing on urgent breakdowns. Out of the 31 House investigations listed in Table 1, three-quarters were triggered by accidents like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and scandals like the Enron Corporation’s collapse, while one quarter emerged from routine police-patrol oversight in the appropriations and authorization process. The Senate investigations on the top-100 list also favored fire alarms, but by a smaller margin than the House (50 percent to 74 percent).

BP CEO Tony Hayward (C) returns to resume his testimony about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, after members of Congress returned to the committee room from a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives, on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 17, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ENVIRONMENT BUSINESS) - GM1E66I09AG01
BP CEO Tony Hayward returns to resume his congressional testimony about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. These types of “fire-alarm investigations” are likely to dominate the first couple years of the current-day House’s oversight agenda. (Credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

My ongoing research on the post-2001 cascade of federal breakdowns strongly suggests that fire alarms will continue ringing far into the future as the House confronts the effects of poorly designed programs like the family-separation policy, antiquated management systems like the Defense Department’s financial system, and the outright sabotage of such government programs as Obamacare and environmental protection. The scandals will increase, too, as the Trump administration continues to pursue what American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman Ornstein has called “kleptocratic corruption” and “administration by the worst.”

Second, the House is almost sure to use blame-setting as its primary investigatory method. Out of the 31 House investigations listed above, all but seven focused on identifying the perpetrator of the breakdown at hand, be it a person, corporation, lobbyist, interest group, government agency, or member of Congress. Why did Eisenhower’s White House chief of staff Sherman Adams accept the vicuna coat that led to his resignation in 1958? Who took bribes from the South Korean government in the 1970s? How did communists infiltrate the movie industry after WWII? Blame-setting investigations can lead to significant government reforms like the Ethics in Government Act, but many of the House blame-setting investigations listed in Table 1 produced inflammatory hearings before bitterly divided committees. A majority of past Senate investigations have also featured blame-setting, but by a slightly lower margin than the House again (52 percent to 77 percent).

“If the past is also prologue for the new Congress, incoming House committee chairs appear to be preparing for a flurry of blame-setting investigations.”

If the past is also prologue for the new Congress, incoming House committee chairs appear to be preparing for a flurry of blame-setting investigations. In late December 2018, for example, Cummings signaled his demand for accountability when he sent 51 document requests to the executive branch on topics ranging from the use of government aircraft for personal travel to the federal role in the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, violations of the Presidential Records Act, misuse of security clearances, and emoluments from foreign governments. The documents may yet lead to regular oversight hearings, but set the stage for more traditional blame-setting reviews associated with subpoenas that will follow if the Trump administration fails to meet the committee’s deadline.

Fire alarms and blame-setting need not disrupt investigatory characteristics such as breadth, thoroughness, seriousness, visibility, and even the freedom to investigate. Indeed, fire alarms and blame-setting are integral to congressional oversight and executive accountability. Congress has an obligation to explore government failures, which inevitably leads to “who-done-it” questions. Nevertheless, the pressure to respond quickly to fire alarms and focus on setting blame must be tempered to assure that investigators have the freedom they need to sculpt their findings toward maximum impact.

IV. Habits of investigation

There is no sure recipe for a good investigation, though the widely respected Project on Government Oversight (POGO) and Wayne State University’s Levin Center continue to promote fact-based, bipartisan, in-depth oversight investigations. Both organizations believe that good government requires good oversight because it enables informed decisionmaking and supports the checks and balances envisioned by the constitution. “The bottom line is that Congress is equal in power to the executive branch, just as it is to the judicial branch,” POGO’s handbook, The Art of Congressional Oversight: A User’s Guide to Doing It Right, states. “Congress has the right to information and should demand it.”

Done well, investigations give both Congress and the president an opportunity to strengthen accountability and improve government performance; done poorly, they weaken faithful execution of the laws and increase public distrust. Defined almost entirely by conduct and process, the good investigation is not so much a work of art as it is artful work that withstands the test of time.

“Done well, investigations give both Congress and the president an opportunity to strengthen accountability and improve government performance; done poorly, they weaken faithful execution of the laws and increase public distrust.”

Based on my interviews with dozens of seasoned investigators over the past decade and deep readings of the oversight literature, there are at least 10 characteristics of a good investigation. None provides a guarantee of success, but each will provide early clues about how the new House majority wields its formidable investigatory power. Based on my reading of the historical record, and my reading alone, the House has a mixed history in pursuing the good investigation.3

Length

The good investigation has enough time to come to judgment, but reaches its conclusion in time to prevent future breakdowns. Of the House investigations on my list, two fifths lasted less than a year, while the rest lasted more than a year. The House is currently preparing for a fast start in 2019—speed is of the essence for establishing the chamber’s reputation as an investigatory juggernaut, but the press for immediate conclusions may lead to narrower probes and less depth.

Bipartisanship

The good investigation seeks bipartisanship whenever possible to assure impact—just a quarter of the House investigations on my list showed significant bipartisanship, while the rest did not. The brutal partisanship of the Boehner era is likely to persist unless Democrats and Republicans can find common cause on an investigation on something other than Trump malfeasance.

Breadth

The good investigation explores the reasonable causes of the breakdown at hand even if doing so increases its length. Only a third of the House investigations on my list pursued broad reviews, while the rest were narrower in scope. Breadth is likely to be an early victim of the Democratic demand for results and its associated effects on the seriousness of any given investigation. Breadth comes at a distinct price, especially in an era of Twitter wars.

Thoroughness

The good investigation establishes cause and effect after a deep analysis of the evidence. Two fifths of the House investigations on my list were thorough. Speed is likely to take its toll on investigatory thoroughness, as is the erosion of congressional capacity highlighted in recent studies of congressional staffing and what one former aide described as the “blowtorching” of House investigatory norms.

Freedom to investigate

The good investigation is free to investigate every lead and examine any angle without interference from its sponsors, stakeholders, and party leaders—about half of the House investigations on my list operated with broad freedom, while the rest did not. At least to date, the Democratic House leadership has shown little desire to limit committee and subcommittee freedom to investigate, although Cummings disciplined the document-collection process to some extent with his December 2018 document requests.

Visibility

The good investigation generates enough of a profile to create relevant public interest as a precursor to the adoption of its recommendations. Two thirds of the House investigations were moderate to very visible, while the rest were not. The major challenge facing House Democrats in coming weeks is not too little visibility, but too much as committees and subcommittees compete for attention in a turbulent environment. Absent careful priority setting from the Democratic leadership, the packed investigatory agenda may create more heat than light and a general sense that Democrats have adopted their version of the McConnell dictum.

Leadership

The good investigation is led by experienced leaders who have the skills and temperament to create maximum impact. Just one-fifth of the House investigations on my list were launched and led by experienced leaders, while four-fifths were not. Leadership could be the Achilles’s heal for Democratic investigators. With an average of 12 terms in office, the new House chairs have plenty of political and congressional history, and at least one has been an ever-present commentator on CNN (California’s Adam Schiff). However, only three of the 21 new chairs—Minnesota’s Collin Peterson, Mississippi’s Bennie Thompson, and New York’s Nydia Velázquez—have ever wielded a chair’s gavel on a full committee, and their early decisions will test all.

“The good investigation is designed to pursue the causes and effects of a breakdown wherever they may lead—it starts with a question and seeks the answer, not the opposite.”

Seriousness

The good investigation is designed to pursue the causes and effects of a breakdown wherever they may lead—it starts with a question and seeks the answer, not the opposite. About half of the House investigations on my list demonstrated this commitment, while the other half did not. Seriousness is very much in the eye of the beholder, but it depends on breadth, thoroughness, visibility, and bipartisanship. It is not yet clear whether and how these attributes will emerge in the new Democratic House, but bipartisanship is far from guaranteed.

Leverage

The good investigation prepares for the adoption of its results by creating and exploiting links to potential adopters. Two thirds of the House investigations on my list created this leverage, while a quarter did not. Leverage is closely tied to leadership, but not bipartisanship. A House investigation achieves its broadest impact through statutes. As such, bipartisanship could play a critical role if House legislation is to survive the Senate with enough votes to withstand a presidential veto.

Durability

The good investigation produces a set of facts and recommendations that exert influence into the future while establishing benchmarks for future oversight. About a third of the House investigations proved to be durable, though some recent investigations like the problem of the 2008 financial crisis have yet to be fully vetted by history. It is much too early to judge the House Democrats, but the freedom to investigate and breadth are critical to the long-lived investigation.

V. Investigating with consequence

Alongside their role in overseeing faithful execution of the laws, investigations also seek to repair or prevent breakdowns. According to my four-level rating scale of investigatory impacts, most House investigations produced modest impacts at best.4 Of the House investigations on my list, 34 percent had no significant impact at all, another 31 percent were only somewhat significant, 22 percent were moderately significant, and just 13 percent were very significant.5

House Democrats should note that impact varies over time and across party control. Although House investigatory impact held steady before and after Watergate and during Democratic and Republican presidencies, it rose during presidential second terms and during unified party control of government and Congress.

  1. Investigations conducted before and after Watergate had about equal impact (33 percent to 32 percent).
  2. Investigations during Democratic and Republican administrations also had about equal impact (31 percent to 35 percent).
  3. Investigations during second-term presidencies had twice the impact of investigations during first-term presidencies (46 percent to 24 percent).
  4. Investigations during nonelection years had four times the impact of investigations during election years (41 percent to 11 percent).
  5. Investigations during unified party control of government had twice the impact of investigations during divided party control (50 percent to 24 percent).
  6. Investigations during unified party control of the two chambers of Congress had twice the impact of investigations during divided party control (36 percent to 17 percent).6

These patterns should give House Democrats pause as they broaden out their investigatory agenda this summer and fall. After all, they are up against a first-term president and a Republican Senate, neither of which has much interest in helping the House achieve investigatory success. Democrats also lost almost two months of their nonelection-year advantage to the shutdown.

House Democrats have options for increasing the odds of impact, however. They can start by paying more attention to police-patrol oversight in selecting their investigatory targets—police patrols had three times the impact in past House investigations than fire alarms (62 percent to 22 percent). They can also embrace fact-finding as their prime investigatory method and avoid blame-setting when possible—fact-finding investigations had more than twice as much impact in than blame-setting (57 percent to 25 percent). They can also focus more on the kinds of domestic breakdowns that affect ordinary Americans—investigations of domestic issues had three times the impact of foreign issues (39 percent to 13 percent).

However, I believe the most important way to increase the odds of impact is to pursue the 10 characteristics of the good investigations.

  1. Longer investigations had roughly equal levels of moderate to very significant impact as shorter (33 percent and 32 percent respectively), but longer investigations produced a higher count of very significant impact than shorter (three to one).
  2. Bipartisan investigations had twice the impact of partisan investigations (50 percent to 26 percent).
  3. Broader investigations had more than three times the impact of narrower investigations (67 percent to 18 percent).
  4. Thorough investigations had almost six times the impact of narrower investigations (62 percent to 11 percent).
  5. Investigations with high freedom had 10 times the impact of investigations with less freedom (60 percent to six percent).
  6. Highly visible investigations had twice the impact than of visible investigations (40 percent to 18 percent).
  7. Investigations led by experienced chairs had almost twice the impact of investigations with less experienced chairs (50 percent to 28 percent).
  8. Serious investigations had more than four times the impact of less serious investigations (53 percent to 12 percent).
  9. High- and low-leverage investigations had roughly equal levels of impact (33 percent to 30 percent), but high-leverage produced a higher count of very significant investigations (seven to three).
  10. Durable investigations had almost five times the impact of less durable investigations (70 to 15 percent).

Some of these characteristics are more important than others. When all 10 characteristics of the good investigation are pitted against each other in a statistical tournament, freedom to investigate and durability were by far the most important predictors of impact.7 As Figure 1 shows, freedom gives experienced leaders the opportunity to pursue whatever attributes they need to produce the impact they seek. The path to impact may vary from inquiry to inquiry, but investigations done well have greater odds of impact. Freedom to investigate does not always lead to a good investigation and significant impact, but its absence almost always guarantees an investigation with minimal impact. Quality counts.

Figure 1: The path to impact

The Path to Impact - House investigations

VI. Improving investigations

Democrats took investigatory control in 2019 at what POGO’s Executive Director Danielle Brian has called a “nadir of accountability” created by conflicts of interest, partisan hackery, and White House duplicity. Although Democrats could hardly be blamed for wanting a bit of payback after years of “Boehnerism,” they would do well to avoid what Waxman once described as the “accuse first, investigate later” investigations that led to Clinton’s impeachment.

Instead of chopping at the Trump administration one failure at a time, Democrats would do well to focus on the conditions that have made his unfaithful execution so easy. “If they focus on investigations and impeachment, you can knock off getting any legislation substance,” Davis recently warned. “It all becomes a two-year exhibition game getting ready for the presidential race.” This is not to embrace Sen. Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) recommendation to “legislate, don’t investigate.” Rather, it is to urge House Democrats to “investigate, then legislate,” if they want to improve government performance.

At first glance, every breakdown looks unique to its investigatory committee, but my research reveals common histories—31 of the 58 most significant government breakdowns since 2001 were caused by poorly designed policies, 41 by staff and budget shortages, 27 by bureaucratic sloth, 28 by leadership vacancies and poor decision, and 18 by corruption. Americans need to see this forest of government vulnerability, too. House committees and subcommittees will have many tales to tell as they drill down into the Trump administration’s failures, but their stories will add up to little unless they work together to repair the broken systems and decisions that have raised the probabilities of failure in every corner of the federal bureaucracy.

Toward this end, consider five recommendations for increasing House investigatory impact:

  1. The House should encourage committees to bundle investigations of government breakdowns that involve similar causes and effects. Much as investigatory committees will claim that each of their probes is sui generis, many of their efforts will focus on the same problems. Committees and subcommittees should be given full freedom to investigate as they deem best, but their recommendations should be combined into legislative proposals that focus on shared remedies to the rising tide of government breakdowns.
  2. The House should ask all of its committees to examine the potential risk of future breakdowns through their police patrol oversight. The House Oversight and Reform Committee could work with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to develop a basic template for conducting these vulnerability assessments during the appropriations process while calling on the Congressional Research Service to develop inventories of recent congressional investigations of common threats to government performance.
  3. The House should create a “Select Committee on Investigatory Practice” to rebuild the investigatory process after years of partisanship. This new committee would act as a bookend to the recently created House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Established this year as part of the House rules package on January 4 on a 418-12 vote, the new committee will work to bring the House into the 21st century of high-tech management on purchasing, travel, staff recruitment, and even mailing standards. An investigatory practice committee could follow the same path in removing barriers to high-impact investigations, not the least of which is creating training materials for new investigators by drawing the Project on Government Oversight, Levin Center, and the Congressional Management Foundation into the effort.
  4. The House should ask the GAO to convert its “High-Risk List” of troubled federal agencies and programs into a road map for future investigations. The semiannual list is designed to draw attention to governmental activities deemed vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, and/or most in need of broad reform. The list now includes a potpourri of challenges such as modernizing the U.S. financial regulatory system, managing the financial consequences of climate change risks, improving federal oversight of food safety, and Defense Department contract management. Each of the vulnerabilities stands on its own as an investigatory concern, but often signal future problems in agencies that have yet to reach a breaking point.
  5. The House should ask the Congressional Research Service (CRS) to provide a searchable website of documents related to previous House investigations by topic. Investigatory staffs do not have the time or research experience to pull together deep inventories of the past probes that might uncover persistent legislative or operations problems that need action. The website would help investigatory staff recover some of the institutional memory sacrificed by committee staff and leadership turnover.

Even as these recommendations improve the ecosystem, as it were, of high-impact investigations, they would give House Democrats the opportunity to conduct more precise hearings, build on past findings, and use their limited hearing time for more serious questioning. They would also be able to raise questions on why the same problems at beleaguered agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, IRS, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement are so difficult to solve.

Some committees will ask whether bundling and high-risk analysis will cut into visibility, while others will wonder whether the resulting hearings will lose their deterrence effects. After all, visibility and deterrence seem to be intimately related—“perp walks” and bright lights are designed to intimate suspects and set examples.

“Visibility is important to electoral success and reputational capital, but it is not essential to the impact that leads to lasting repairs or deterrence.”

However, the available evidence from this report suggests that visibility is not a significant contributor to either durability or the impact it produces. Visibility is important to electoral success and reputational capital, but it is not essential to the impact that leads to lasting repairs or deterrence. Indeed, fear of the good investigation may be the root source of effective practice. It is a hypothesis well worth testing in the 116th Congress.


The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit organization devoted to independent research and policy solutions. Its mission is to conduct high-quality, independent research and, based on that research, to provide innovative, practical recommendations for policymakers and the public. The conclusions and recommendations of any Brookings publication are solely those of its author(s), and do not reflect the views of the Institution, its management, or its other scholars. Brookings recognizes that the value it provides is in its absolute commitment to quality, independence, and impact. Activities supported by its donors reflect this commitment.

Viewed as a leading, independent voice in the domestic policymaking sphere, the Governance Studies program at Brookings is dedicated to analyzing policy issues, political institutions and processes, and contemporary governance challenges. Our scholarship identifies areas in need of reform and proposes specific solutions to improve governance worldwide, but with a particular emphasis on the United States.

Footnotes

  1. My list of the 31 most important House investigations is drawn from my larger list of the 100 most important House, Senate, and presidential blue-ribbon investigations conducted between 1945-2012. The list can be found in Paul C. Light, Government by Investigation: Congress, Presidents, and the Search for Answers, 1945-2012 (Washington, D.C., 2013). The Government by Investigation list was developed through interviews with almost 100 former members of Congress, investigators, scholars, and journalists, and further analysis of lists created by political scientists, historians, the Congressional Research Service, the House and Senate historians, Congressional Quarterly, and the Congressional Quarterly Almanac. These sources are detailed in Appendix B of Government by Investigation, pp. 221-223. I continue to be grateful for the Governance Institute’s longstanding support for this work and to its president, Russell Wheeler for his editorial insights. I am also grateful to the Brookings Institution’s editorial team, including Elizabeth Sablich, Louis Serino, and Michaela Broyles for their work in bringing this publication to fruition.
  2. The House was at the helm of just nine of the 31 congressional investigations launched from the end of World War II in 1945 to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, but 22 of the 47 congressional investigations launched from Nixon’s resignation to the end of the 112th Congress in 2012. Table 1 includes nine House probes that occurred almost simultaneously with Senate investigations. These investigations are not included in the data analysis for this report because the investigatory impacts cannot be easily attributed to either the House or the Senate.
  3. My coding of these characteristics of the good investigation is based on my reading of the investigatory records of each of the 31 House probes, as well as deep interviews with 96 experts in the field. As such, my codes are best viewed as informed judgments, not scientific facts.
  4. My four-point impact measure moves from insignificant to somewhat significant, moderately significant, and very significant. This follows Thomas Wolanin’s approach in his 1975 study of presidential commissions. Wolanin was far from satisfied with the standard measure of impact—whether a problem was solved at some point after a commission reported—if only because commissions cannot be credited easily with solving grand problems. Instead, Wolanin asked whether the president pursued action on any recommendations.
  5. I have adapted Wolanin’s scale to cover House and Senate investigations as follows: (1) none (no action of any kind to implement the recommendations), (2) minimal (either a presidential statement or a formal message to Congress acknowledging the case for reform and promising action), (3) substantial (at least an administrative or legislative proposal implementing action), or (4) major (either formal administrative action by the president or enactment and implementation of a formal statute). As Wolanin wrote in 1975, “If there is a correspondence between a commission’s recommendations and changes in government policy (particularly if these developments are accompanied by evidence linking the commission to the changes or the President’s views), then the commission will be judged to have some impact.” See Thomas R. Wolanin, Presidential Advisory Commissions: Truman to Nixon (University of Wisconsin Press, 1975), p. 131.
  6. The 10 House investigations with either moderate or very significant impacts were (1) Bureau of Internal Revenue Corruption, 1951, (2) Munition Industry Lobbying, 1959, (3) Government Information Management (Spin), 1963, (4) Welfare Fraud, 1975, (5) Savings and Loan Crisis, 1987, (6) Tobacco Industry Practices, 1993, (7) Y2K Technology Glitch, 1998, (8) Enron Collapse, 2001, (9) Steroid Abuse in Baseball, 2005, and (10) Hurricane Katrina. Out of the six House investigations launched during a divided Congress, only one had very significant impact, one had somewhat significant impact, and four had no impact at all.
  7. These findings come from a linear regression of the 10 characteristics against the four-point impact of each investigation. See the model summary and coefficient information here.
Get daily updates from Brookings