There has been plenty of speculation about what will happen if the Republicans take control of the House or the Senate in the upcoming midterm elections. Strategists of both parties, including those at the White House, see two general possibilities. The GOP might work cooperatively with President Obama on some issues of common interest, such as getting control of the federal deficit. Or Republicans will push against Obama by insisting on more tax cuts, less federal regulation, and a rollback of his signature accomplishment, the new healthcare law.
But one of the biggest problems for the White House in dealing with a Republican-run Congress would be something that has drawn little public attention—the GOP using the legislative branch's majority powers to investigate, call hearings, and subpoena witnesses to embarrass and hold the administration to account. Some Democrats see the prospect of witch hunts and endless probes, which could tie the administration in knots with constant demands for documents and appearances by senior officials. Some GOP leaders privately say that's likely. "There's a long list of things on which Republicans are chomping at the bit to put his people in the hot seat," says a former senior adviser to President Ronald Reagan who is close to many GOP legislators on Capitol Hill.
Among the subjects likely to come up for investigation, according to GOP sources:
• The administration's controversial decisions to bail out banks and other financial institutions.
• How Obama appointees are administering the new healthcare law, how much it is costing, whether the administration is exceeding its statutory jurisdiction, and whether the law is turning into an excessive use of government, which many Republicans predicted.
• The bailouts of automakers General Motors and Chrysler.
• The Minerals Management Service and the extent to which the agency failed to see problems with the BP drilling platform that blew up in the Gulf of Mexico, and why the cleanup and the federal response didn't happen faster.
• Obama's use of recess appointments and special executive branch "czars" or White House advisers, such as consumer financial regulation adviser Elizabeth Warren, to run important functions of the government rather than submit nominations to the Senate for confirmation.
• The small New Black Panther Party and, notably, GOP claims that three members tried to intimidate voters at a Philadelphia polling place in 2008. Conservatives have criticized Attorney General Eric Holder for narrowing a Justice Department prosecution of this case.
Among the legislators who are expected to be in the forefront of these investigations are Reps. Darrell Issa of California, who is in line to become chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Lamar Smith of Texas, who is expected to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
It's the duty of Congress to serve as a watchdog over the executive branch. That means determining if taxpayers' money is being wasted; looking into whether programs have outlived their usefulness; and rooting out corruption, fraud, and abuse. [See who is donating to your member of Congress.]
The last time there was an extended period of divided government, in the 1990s, the Republicans on Capitol Hill spent large amounts of their time investigating Clinton's administration and going after Bill and Hillary Clinton personally. Among the specific topics were the suicide of White House aide Vince Foster (multiple reviews debunked anti-Clinton conspiracy theories and attributed it to Foster's clinical depression) and the Whitewater land-development deal in Arkansas (investigations found no legal wrongdoing by the Clintons). And of course there was the scrutiny of Clinton's affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, which led GOP legislators in the House to impeach Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. But the Senate acquitted the president. Both sides fiercely debated whether Clinton was being treated unfairly.
A new cycle of questioning would worsen partisan tensions and likely increase public dissatisfaction with Washington. White House officials say there's nothing they can do about any prospective GOP intentions, other than try to prevent a Republican takeover on November 2. Obama and his aides have reason for concern on both counts.