With Democrats securing a solid majority in the House in last week's midterm elections, their agenda for the 116th Congress is beginning to emerge with many industries and issues coming into view as likely targets of Congressional oversight by committees soon to be led by Democratic chairs. While in the minority, members from numerous committees launched investigations into a wide variety of issues and sent letters to companies, organizations, and institutions, but they now have the gavel and subpoena power to back up their inquiries.
Much like 2007, we are likely to see a Democratic-controlled House aggressively pursue executive branch oversight and focus the bulk of its activity on investigations. While holding the executive branch accountable will surely be a priority, we also expect Dems to increase oversight of private companies and institutions both generally, as well as in their dealings with the Administration. The experienced Members and investigators leading the charge are not only extremely skilled, they are also energized and prepared to investigate from the majority seat. Watch for Minority Leader (and soon-to-be Speaker) Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to coordinate investigations and turn key issues into legislation and political messaging.
Key Committees and Issues
We expect that many of the most high-profile and hard-hitting investigations will come out of several key committees: the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (HOGR, Rep. Cummings, D-MD); House Judiciary Committee (HJC, Rep. Nadler, D-NY); House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI, Rep. Schiff, D-CA); House Financial Services Committee (HFS, Rep. Waters, D-CA); House Energy and Commerce Committee (E&C, Rep. Pallone, D-NJ); and House Ways and Means (Rep. Neal, D-MA). In addition to substantive and sometimes bipartisan issues such as drug pricing and financial fraud, companies, organizations, and individuals with ties to the Trump Administration could easily get caught up in Democratic-led congressional investigations on a wide variety of issues, including those highlighted below.
Oversight and Government Reform: HOGR has broad jurisdiction and reach, and right out of the gate is likely to dig into the myriad of well-documented ethics and conflicts issues raised in the last two years about many of the Administration's highest-ranking officials. For instance, Commerce (census) and Interior (travel/conflicts of interest) are likely targets, as well the Veterans Administration (Mar a Lago influence), FEMA and the Puerto Rico response, and DHS/ICE immigration actions, including actions at the U.S.-Mexico border. Not only will these investigations target executive branch agencies and officials, but also expect related inquiries to government contractors, private companies, lobbyists, and interest groups with ties to this Administration. In addition, Rep. Cummings already partnered with his counterparts on HJC (Rep. Nadler) and HPSCI (Rep. Schiff) to send letters to the White House and top Administration officials at multiple agencies demanding records preservation following the "resignation" of former Attorney General Sessions. He also has repeatedly investigated "skyrocketing" drug pricing as Ranking Member and has publicly reiterated after the midterms that he will use his Chairmanship to dig deeper into this issue.
Judiciary: HJC is widely expected to closely examine issues between and involving DOJ, FBI, and the Trump Administration, with the recent dismissal of former Attorney General Sessions and appointment of Acting AG Matt Whitaker an obvious first target. As noted above, Rep. Nadler already fired off letters to the Administration with Rep. Cummings and Rep. Schiff to remind them of their preservation obligations and stated publicly that Acting AG Whitaker will be the committee's first witness in January. He also noted that protecting the Mueller investigation is a top priority. Look for other inquiries related to any limitation on or obstruction of the Mueller investigation, the politicization of the DOJ/FBI and the rule of law, potential abuse of the pardon power, campaign finance violations, and emoluments/self-dealing. Watch also for HJC investigations to focus on DHS/ICE, family separations, immigration enforcement, asylum issues, gun control, and DOJ's related role in these areas.
Intel: HPSCI will focus heavily on Russia and re-directing the Rep. Nunes-led investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, as well as issues involving the Middle East, particularly with recent events involving Saudi Arabia. For instance, HPSCI's Dems dissented earlier this year from the GOP's report on Russian interference, noting that the majority had ignored many important lines of inquiry. Companies and individuals who have been involved to date in Russia-related investigations by HPSCI, as well as the joint HJC-HOGR investigation, may find the new majority revisiting many of the same issues from a different angle. As Rep. Schiff also has stated, one key aim is to see if the President is conducting foreign affairs in the country's best interests or in the "pecuniary interests of the first family," and relatedly, examining whether the President has used his office to target and punish the media and other companies.
Financial Services: Look for a Dem-controlled HFS to continue focusing on large banks and as soon-to-be Chairwoman Waters has stated publicly, zero-in on Wells Fargo and Deutsche Bank from the start, already asking for the latter's records on loans to Trump. Consistent with Waters' statement around Deutche Bank, look for HFS to examine ties between the financial services industry and Trump and Kushner companies, as well as other Trump affiliates caught up in the ongoing Mueller probe. As part of a broad agenda for the committee, Rep. Waters has repeatedly championed investor and consumer protection issues in the banking sector, including lending practices involving student and low-income borrowers and consumer credit reporting; housing finance reform, the rental housing crisis, and government efforts around fair housing and discrimination; and the CFPB's perceived lack of enforcement in this Administration around industries such as payday lending. She also has publicly denounced the President's "interference" with the Federal Reserve.
Energy and Commerce: E&C is likely to focus on drug pricing, ACA implementation, the EPA and industry ties to the agency, data privacy, and other issues involving three major sectors in the U.S. and global economy—pharma, energy, and tech. For instance, companies that have benefited from EPA rulemaking and deregulation may find themselves in front of E&C, including oil and gas, chemical, and the power sector. And with continued and growing public interest in tech and related data privacy issues, as well as emerging technologies such as AI, drones, and driverless cars, we expect additional E&C focus on social media and other tech companies as well.
Ways and Means: Look for Ways and Means to use its jurisdiction over taxes, trade, healthcare, and social security to take the lead on President Trump's taxes and implementation of the ACA, as well as conduct oversight into drug pricing along with other House committees. Rep. Neal has confirmed publicly that if the President does not release his tax returns voluntarily, he will use the committee's oversight reach to obtain them and expects that the issue may end up in federal court. We also anticipate Ways and Means to use investigations to shore up the ACA and attack last year's tax cuts.
Venable's bipartisan congressional investigations team has represented scores of companies, organizations, institutions, and individuals before Congress in numerous investigations. Contact any of the contributors if you have any questions or to learn more.