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Holding the Government Accountable

The Depressing Heroism of a Bipartisan Congressional Inquiry

(Photos: CSPAN; Illustration by POGO)

An oversight request from the Senate Judiciary Committee last month went all but unnoticed, lost in the tempest of scandals, resignations, and blistering partisanship that has swamped Washington. It deserves greater attention, and even praise. Because it shows that while our elected officials have all but wrecked our systems of checks and balances, with enough will they can, at moments, make them function as intended.

On February 27, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley and Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal sent a letter to the Trump Administration requesting information on how government employees receive approval to access sensitive or classified information.

"Recent reports reveal that officials at the highest levels of government may be operating with only interim security clearances, either because of delays in the clearance-granting process or because information revealed during that process is not acted on in a timely and appropriate fashion," the two wrote White House Counsel Donald F. McGahn II and FBI Director Christopher Wray. "If true, this raises significant concerns that ineligible individuals, who hold positions of public trust, may have access to sensitive or classified information."

Senator Grassley is chairman of the Judiciary Committee; Senator Blumenthal is ranking member of the panel's Subcommittee on Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts. The bipartisan duo's inquiry included half a dozen questions regarding the policies and procedures for both White House and Congressional employees to receive clearances.

It seems increasingly rare that lawmakers can reach across the aisle to cooperatively conduct oversight, even on matters of bipartisan—or suprapartisan—concern. Despite its rarity, bipartisan oversight remains the most effective form of Congressional oversight, with the greatest likelihood of securing answers, driving reform, and checking executive overreach.

The issue of interim clearances, which came to public notice following the revelation that former White House staff secretary Rob Porter had access to classified information despite abuse allegations from his two former spouses, is as good a topic as any for a Republican and Democrat to find common concern. It even affects both the executive and legislative branches: prior to serving in the White House, Porter had been a Congressional staffer, and the duo's letter reflects that.

Bipartisan oversight does not require its practitioners to maintain a priestly avoidance of partisan issues at all times: indeed, Senator Blumenthal has repeatedly sparred with the White House and even Trump himself over allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

His comments prompted the President to tweet last August that "Never in U.S. history has anyone lied or defrauded voters like Senator Richard Blumenthal." In December, Blumenthal tweeted that Trump's denials of collusion were "rotten to the core and doomed to unravel."

For his part, Grassley has supported starkly partisan White House positions from his Judiciary perch, like advancing most of Trump's judicial nominees without consultation from Democrats. In many cases, he has done so by sidestepping the long-standing bipartisan tradition of "blue slips," where nominees are not considered unless both home state Senators, regardless of party, provide a "blue slip" of approval. Such close assistance to the White House led the Des Moines Register last November to remind Grassley he should not be the President's "errand boy."

Bipartisan oversight requires only that Members see past the demands of their party to the needs of their country; and when their concerns are shared by another across the aisle, to join forces.

Amid the tumult of a White House engulfed in unprecedented measures of scandal, investigation, and self-inflicted chaos, a letter like theirs barely registers a blip. But it deserves attention. In an era of waning Congressional appetite for oversight and holding the executive branch accountable—and in a Congress that has seen vital oversight panels sink to new lows of partisan conflict—acts like the Grassley-Blumenthal letter are almost heroic.

That is admittedly a low bar for heroism, but only because so few of our current elected officials appear capable of meeting it.