The Revolving Door Project, a Prospect partner, scrutinizes the executive branch and presidential power. Follow them at therevolvingdoorproject.org.
Beholden more than ever to the insurrectionist fringe of their party, Republican leadership in the House has set their mind on one thing—disrupting the Biden administration. The obstructionist playbook isn’t new to Biden, who witnessed it for eight years while serving as Obama’s vice president. But the Republican Party is even battier now than it was during John Boehner’s time as Speaker of the House. House Republicans are set to use the 118th Congress on deranged and vindictive distractions like obtaining lewd pictures of the president’s son, pillorying the generals they believe are turning the military “woke,” and painting targets on the backs of LGBTQ+ educators. The massive problems Americans are asking Congress to address, such as the rental housing crisis, mass airline cancellations, and fixing the USPS, will be ignored.
But there’s a path forward for Democrats to make the most of Republicans’ obstructionist agenda and advance their arguments on policy prescriptions that help everyday Americans, all while winning a political-messaging war that will set them up for success in 2024—and the Senate is the place to do it.
Due to their reliance on Vice President Harris to break ties, Democrats didn’t hold a majority of seats on Senate committees during the last Congress despite controlling the chamber and committee chairs. But thanks to John Fetterman winning in Pennsylvania, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer now has the ability to place a majority of Democrats on each committee, and through that, the ability to win party-line votes on subpoenas and other oversight functions. These powers can ensure the vast executive branch apparatus is fully staffed and carrying out its intended functions, and allow Senate Democrats to crack down on failings by the executive branch while advancing the Biden agenda.
Simple hearings can make a big difference. These are often criticized as mere theater, but in reality, hearings can and often do bring attention to otherwise boring policy debates. The theater and drama that comes with the tough questioning of witnesses provides the media with something newsworthy and can rekindle public interest or shift opinion. While the January 6th Committee failed to have a large impact on American public opinion, committee daises have worked as effective bully pulpits in the past—like branding Big Tobacco as a threat to public health in the ’90s or exposing Republican corruption in the 1930s. And though it may be increasingly uncommon, members of Congress can also take interest in a policy issue or change their position based on testimony they hear while sitting in on congressional hearings. Below is a list of ideas for Senate Democrats to begin with.
Despite being in office for two years, Biden’s executive branch still contains Trump appointees in crucial positions, slowing progress and otherwise wreaking havoc. Among them are the Trump-appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security Joseph Cuffari. While Biden has the power to fire both Wray and Cuffari, his ability to do so is hampered by a mainstream media that is eager to pounce on the Biden administration, if not make facile comparisons to the Trump years. Senate Democrats can counterbalance this problem by grilling these Trump holdovers in full view of the press. Similarly, though DeJoy is somewhat insulated from Biden’s direct power (he answers to the Postal Service Board of Governors), Senate hearings on his destruction of USPS capacity could help pressure him to resign or force the Board of Governors to fire him. Public pressure on DeJoy has already been shown to work, forcing the USPS to change its next fleet of delivery vehicles from 10 percent zero-emission to 40 percent.
Interest rate hikes won’t solve the causes of our current inflation crisis, which has been largely driven by supply chain breakdowns with a side of corporate profiteering. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell admitted as much last year when pressed by Sen. Warren. Yet the Fed remains committed to crushing workers’ wage gains even if that requires sending the country into a recession. Democrats should be fighting the Fed’s blatant anti-worker bias not only because it’s immoral, but because of the political repercussions of a Fed-induced recession ahead of the 2024 election cycle. With inflation showing signs of slowing, Democrats should be holding public hearings, asking Powell what level inflation must reach before he pulls back the reins on Fed interest rate hikes, and how he could justify the human suffering a large recession would cause.
Federal oversight of the Department of Defense has been dormant for years. Thankfully, after seven years without a full-time Pentagon-specific inspector general, the Senate finally confirmed one in December of 2022. OIGs are crucial in the functioning of the federal government and in holding powerful people and institutions accountable to the public. However, with the Pentagon recently failing its fifth-straight audit because third-party investigators could not account for a shocking 61 percent of the Pentagon’s $3.5 trillion in assets (that’s $2,135,000,000,000 in untraceable resources), the need for investigation from the Senate’s oversight committees for the Pentagon’s newly awarded $858 billion budget remains dire.
Beyond the budget, there’s plenty more that the Senate bears responsibility for investigating. From allegations of drug and sex trafficking and rampant procurement fraud schemes, to the military’s duplicitous reporting on its poisoning of civilians and service members, the Senate Armed Services Committee should be busy ensuring that the federal government’s largest agency is accountable to the public.
Trump-Era Positions at Justice
Unfortunately, appointees are not the only carryover from the Trump administration to Biden’s Department of Justice. Biden’s attorney general, Merrick Garland, has continued lawsuits begun by the Trump administration, many of which would have devastating results to progressive priorities. Garland has continued to pursue a case against California, asking the Supreme Court to nullify a state law that bans the sale of pork that comes from pigs treated inhumanely. He also supported Biden’s continuation of the Trump policy of using Title 42—ostensibly a public-health law—to expel over a million asylum seekers before they had the opportunity to legally apply. While the administration has since changed course on this policy, the harm it caused cannot be reversed. Senate Democrats should hold hearings asking Garland why he has continued to pursue a bevy of harmful Trump policies years into the Biden administration.
2022 saw a sustained uptick in unionization drives but was met with corporations eager to use every union-busting tactic in the book. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has brazenly spoken against union efforts, going so far as to say he would not work with a union in a New York Times interview. Amazon CEO Andy Jassy has regularly gotten in hot water with the NLRB over his anti-union comments in interviews, saying unions make it “harder … to get things done quickly” and interfere with the manager/employee relationship.
Senate Democrats should do everything in their power to mitigate the onslaught of union busting. With the American people having a more positive view of labor unions now than at any time in the past 50 years, Senate Democrats have the perfect opportunity to hold newsworthy hearings lambasting CEOs for undermining their workers’ right to organize. Just as with DeJoy and Wray, Senate Democrats can bring public pressure to bear by subpoenaing the anti-worker executives who are exposing workers to unsafe working environments and blatantly violating their rights.
Importantly, private corporations aren’t the only impediment to worker rights. The chronic underfunding of both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has left workers with subpar enforcement of labor protections. The omnibus bill to fund the government passed last December included some increased funding for both organizations—$20 million for OSHA and $25 million for the NLRB—but both increases fell well short of the requests made by the agencies and are especially inadequate in the face of inflation. The Biden administration has appointed capable leaders for both OSHA and the NLRB, but they cannot succeed without the staff and funding needed to carry out their missions. Senate Democrats seeking to support labor would be smart to hold hearings on the continued underfunding of these agencies and the real-world consequences of the lax enforcement of their mandates. While a large increase in their budgets may be unlikely so long as Republicans hold the House, years-long campaigns are often needed to achieve real change in Washington. It’s wise for Democrats to continue the funding fight looking forward to FY2025 and beyond.
In the past year, Americans have faced a series of crises in commercial aviation, with the number of canceled flights soaring far past previous years. That coincided with an ongoing trend of airlines playing fast and loose with required refunds: Many provided travel vouchers or points instead of the cash refund explicitly mandated by federal law. And in the final days of 2022, Southwest had a full-on implosion driven by outdated IT infrastructure and understaffing, resulting in the airline stranding thousands of people traveling between Christmas and New Year’s. Not to be outdone, 2023 started out with a bang: An issue with the Federal Aviation Administration’s NOTAM system caused the largest grounding since the 9/11 attacks.
For two years, Pete Buttigieg’s Department of Transportation has pulled its punches. Not a single fine has been levied for mass cancellations. The biggest consequence major domestic airline executives faced this summer was a stern warning. Southwest, basically taunting the DOT, gave its execs raises immediately after their spectacular failure. Senate Democrats should be asking why Buttigieg and Biden tapped former airline executives to run the FAA and why the DOT won’t use its unfair and deceptive practices rule to protect consumers.
The dizzying rise and fall of the crypto industry has been met with fervent calls for congressional input, particularly in the form of new legislation. Two prominent members of the Democratic caucus, Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), have been the faces of industry-friendly bills that would essentially sideline the Securities and Exchange Commission and place crypto oversight in the hands of the much weaker Commodity Futures Trading Commission. This is clearly the wrong approach; what is needed now is not handouts to an incredibly corrupt and fraudulent industry, but actual support for enforcement of long-standing consumer protection laws.
The Democratic caucus should move past hearings seeking to discover the purported untold promises of crypto and instead focus its energies on highlighting the numerous ways the industry continues to take advantage of Americans. Congressional efforts to derail the SEC’s investigations of crypto firms last year are an example of a path not to be followed. Instead, Senate Democrats can push the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy to investigate the environmental impact of crypto mining and push the Federal Trade Commission to look into the industry’s false advertising and fraudulent trade practices. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should continue to document the many shady ways industry players fleece consumers. Additionally, senators should engage financial regulatory agencies and the Department of Labor, which cautioned 401(k) plan fiduciaries against investments in crypto.
The swift implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act’s health care provisions should remain a top health priority for Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Addressing the pricing of prescription drugs for those who are on Medicare, as well as the extension of subsidies initially conferred through the American Rescue Plan Act is not only good policy, it’s popular. Of similar importance are needed reforms of pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), which contribute tremendously to high prescription drug costs nationwide. The increasing consolidation within the pharmaceutical industry has resulted in increasing costs and a lack of competition resulting in increasing disapproval and frustration among the public. Holding hearings on the middlemen who increase costs for lifesaving drugs is an easy way to put public pressure on PBMs and to advance bipartisan efforts to address the issues of PBM spread pricing and a lack of rebate transparency.
Well over $500 billion in public funds enters the coffers of government contractors each year. This enormous industry has become the playground of war profiteers and monopolists, labor abusers, union busters, and scammers of all stripes. The federal government should not reward private actors that hurt the public and stand in violation of federal law with huge payouts of public monies. Senate Democrats have the opportunity to crack down on unethical contractors, improving the services the government receives and improving the lives of those employed by these corporations. As the GOP-led House seeks to hold hostage future federal funds, finding out where the government’s money goes and for what matters more than ever.
The 2022 midterms showed Americans were not interested in the Republican Party’s focus on culture-war issues. As Republicans in the House continue to compete to see which committee chair can impress Tucker Carlson, the Senate Democrats have an opportunity to provide a contrasting vision of governance. They can become the model for what competent governance looks like—and improve the lives of millions of Americans in the process.