New avenues for accountability and oversight became possible in Washington, D.C., in 2019, following the election of a new Democratic Party majority in the House (and the most diverse Congress ever) in the 2018 midterms. As a result, Democrats took hold of the subpoena power that rests in the House of Representatives, along with the power to set the agenda across congressional committees. As a result, 2019 has been full of important moments for congressional oversight of both the Trump administration and private business. Here are five of the most important moments in congressional oversight in 2019.
- Betsy DeVos, Are You “Too Corrupt” or “Too Incompetent”?
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been busy losing in court this year. A judge found she had illegally delayed an Obama-era rule to address racial disparities in special education. This follows DeVos’s loss in court in 2018 when a judge found she had illegally delayed an Obama-era rule that governs how students whose schools break the law can have their federal student loans cancelled. And following losses in yet another court case, Calvillo Manriquez v. DeVos, the Department of Education was directed to stop collecting on the debt of any former student of the now bankrupt for-profit Corinthian Colleges who was eligible for loan cancellation due to the school’s widespread fraud. Except the Department of Education didn’t stop. The department collected on over 17,000 additional borrowers anyway, in violation of the court order. So U.S. District Judge Sallie Kim held DeVos in contempt of court, and issued a fine of $100,000. After this ruling, the department found yet another 17,258 borrowers who’d been illegally collected on.
This ongoing saga of malfeasance by the Department of Education led Rep. Josh Harder to ask DeVos in an Education and Labor Committee hearing if she was “deliberately violating this federal court order because you are too corrupt to uphold the law, or because you are too incompetent to do your job?” In the same hearing, Rep. Frederica Wilson told the story of Jessica Madison, a borrower who had her wages garnished despite her debt cancellation being approved, causing her to be unable to afford to visit the doctor. Madison later died. Representative Wilson told DeVos that she’s had “some honest disagreements with my friends in the Republican Party about how to move education forward, but I’ve never, not one time, believed that they were out to destroy public education until I met you.” DeVos — along with her brother Erik Prince of the private military contractor company formerly known as Blackwater — was born into wealth, is worth billions and is not accustomed to being held to account. This was apparent in the way DeVos sniped back at the members, telling Representative Harder she did not have to listen to what he had “spewed out of [his] mouth.” Thankfully, the 116th Congress is finally teaching the Secretary of Education a thing or two about accountability for one’s mistakes.
- Big Bank CEOs Are Stumped by Simple Budgets
This past April, the CEOs of the largest Wall Street banks appeared before the House Financial Services Committee. Bank of America, trying to get in front of the grilling before it happened, announced prior to the hearing that the company would raise its wages to $17 per hour by May and $20 per hour in 2020. All the bank CEOs were grilled for their practices during the hearing by multiple members, including Rep. Nydia Velázquez, who pointed out the enormous pay disparity between CEOs and median workers, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley who noted that in the financial crisis, Black women were 256 percent more likely to receive a subprime loan than a white man. But it was Rep. Katie Porter who stumped JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon with a budget question based on a hypothetical Chase employee making entry-level wages in her district. When Porter asked how this hypothetical employee should deal with the $567 budget shortfall she faced each month after dealing with all her very modest expenses, Dimon replied simply, “I don’t know.” The clip went viral and garnered wide coverage in the media and on cable news. And while Dimon wasn’t swayed to raise his bank’s wages, the scrutiny appears to have made Bank of America eager to accelerate workers’ pay raises. The company announced late this year that it would be boosting minimum wage at the firm to $20 in early 2020, a year ahead of schedule.
- Wells Fargo Announces Plan to Divest From Private Prisons in Congressional Testimony
In 2019, six major banks committed to no longer extend financing to private prisons once their current agreements expire. This came after years of work by groups like Make the Road New York and the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD). The “Corporate Backers of Hate” campaign was first launched by CPD in 2017. The work in some ways culminated in extreme scrutiny in that same March 2019 hearing with bank CEOs. Days before the hearing, JPMorgan Chase announced it would be exiting these investments. Then, during the hearing itself, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked Wells Fargo’s CEO about the bank’s investments in private prison operators. Then-CEO Tim Sloan announced that Wells Fargo would be exiting those investments once they expired. The long, intense work by the #BackersOfHate campaign, combined with the congressional pressure, made the victory possible — something Representative Ocasio-Cortez herself acknowledged. The move means that private prison operators GEO Group and CoreCivic will lose 72 percent (or nearly $2 billion) of their private financing, according to an analysis by CPD.
- Rep. Ilhan Omar vs. Elliott Abrams
Elliott Abrams is Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela. But he is also the disgraced former assistant secretary of state who played a central in the Iran-Contra affair and pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress in 1991. When Abrams testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in February, Representative Omar told Abrams, “I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful.” It was a rare moment in Washington, where decorum usually prevails, especially among Democrats, and former officials from various presidential administrations often collect large checks at think tanks regardless of their records. Representative Omar would not let Abrams’s image be rehabilitated. She used her position on the dais to re-litigate his record. She questioned him about his record in Ronald Reagan’s administration, where Abrams downplayed human rights abuses by the right-wing military government, whose soldiers were trained and equipped by the United States. In the El Mozote massacre, nearly 1,000 men, women and children were slaughtered. Representative Omar used her five-minute period to ask Abrams if he still thought the U.S. government’s involvement in El Salvador was a “fabulous achievement,” as he told The Washington Post in 1993. Abrams initially refused to answer, but eventually conceded that “no,” the massacre was not a fabulous achievement. Abrams was furious throughout the five minutes, calling Omar’s questions “ridiculous” and often refusing to answer. In a town where accountability so often escapes the powerful, especially those who served in presidential administrations, Representative Omar’s line of questioning introduced a whole new generation to past abuses by the U.S. government and refused to let Abrams speak with impunity.
- Voting to Impeach the President
The crowning finale to this list, of course, is Donald Trump’s impeachment. Exactly 349 days after the new Congress was sworn in on January 3, and just one day shy of 21 years since the December 18, 1998, impeachment of Bill Clinton, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The votes were 230-197 on abuse of power and 229-198 on obstruction of Congress. Trump became only the third president ever impeached (Nixon resigned before he could be impeached), and faces a January trial in the Senate. But regardless of the likely acquittal in the Senate, impeachment will hound Trump and stain his legacy. Trump knows this, and he acted increasingly panicked in the lead-up to his impeachment, writing a frantic six-page letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi full of exclamation marks, and tweeting a record-breaking number of times two weeks prior to impeachment. The Senate trial will slow down judicial nominations and injure GOP senators in purple states with tough 2020 re-elections. It is also likely to hurt Trump’s political heirs and close associates, much as impeachment stained the legacy of Hillary Clinton even decades after her husband’s impeachment. The Democrats took the House in a wave of anti-Trump sentiment and a thirst for accountability. In one of their final acts of Congress for the year, the Democratic House, finally, has delivered impeachment. It won’t be enough, but it’s an important start for accountability for a president who’s spent his life breaking laws and committing cruelty with impunity.
The fight for accountability is still alive in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that he was “not impartial” about the Senate trial to remove Trump, calling into question the fairness of the jury and the process. As a result, Speaker Pelosi may withhold the formal notice on the articles of impeachment, potentially preventing them from moving to the Senate and the trial from proceeding. But regardless of whether or not Trump is removed by the Senate, the people will have a chance to impeach and remove Trump, once and for all, in November 2020.