Remember how much fun impeachment was?

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Republican Senate Will Grill the White House

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “The World According to Star Wars” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
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Of the many changes that will result from the midterm elections, here's a big one that has received scant attention: Expect hearings and investigations. Lots of them.

When the president’s party controls the Senate, the chairs of its various committees tend to be relatively friendly. Yes, they  hold hearings and engage in investigations, but as a general rule, the process is cordial not adversarial.

Such cordiality has concrete consequences. A Senate committee is far less likely to ask for thousands of internal e-mails if it is controlled by the same party as the president. Or if the administration opposes a planned hearing on some controversial action of the Department of Agriculture, it might well be able to delay it -- or even to convince the committee chair not to hold it at all. And if the secretary of agriculture does not want to testify at a hearing, there is a reasonable chance that the White House can persuade the committee chair to excuse him.

Once Republicans control the Senate, members will be holding more hearings, and conducting many more investigations. Requests for internal documents, including e-mails, are likely. It will be harder for high-level officials to avoid appearing in hostile territory. At least some of the investigations will seem to involve a real problem, but appearances can be misleading: They might well be an effort to embarrass, weaken, or even cripple some prominent person or project.

Of course it is true that the House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans since 2011, has already initiated a number of investigations, but a new Senate majority will inevitably have plans and concerns of its own.

For the White House, the immediate effect will be a diversion of time and attention. Instead of working on some policy initiative, some people will have to focus on how to handle an unfriendly and potentially threatening hearing on a subject they may not necessarily want to address in public. The White House counsel (currently Neil Eggleston) will be under new pressure -- akin to that of a middle linebacker, anchoring his team’s defense against an offense that is planning a multi-pronged attack (with some unexpected plays).

Of course, the White House counsel is hardly alone. The White House Office of Legislative Affairs, along with many other legislative affairs offices, is heavily involved. For those who work in such offices, the stakes may become both higher and different when control of the Senate changes hands. From my own experience during the first term of the Barack Obama Administration, I can attest that “hearing prep” may well involve 20 or more people, devoting many hours in part to substantive issues, but also (and intensely) to strategies for avoiding damaging soundbites and minor misstatements that might be turned into political theater.  

It is true that the majority of hearings and investigations produce nothing at all, aside from some unwelcome news stories. But for the executive branch, there are genuine risks: Republicans will be seeking to uncover and to publicize what they see, or hope to portray, as serious errors or real wrongdoing. Some of their investigations will ask legitimate questions and raise significant concerns. But others will be mostly for the cameras. The elephant in the room will be 2016, with hearings and investigations designed above all to strengthen the hand of Republican candidates.

In previous years, Democrats have done exactly the same thing, so camera-driven hearings, held mostly for political advantage, are hardly the province of just one party. And to be sure, a commitment to discipline on the part of Senate leadership can help, ensuring a focus on substance rather than on baseless accusations, politicking and noise

No one should deny that a degree of friction between the president and Congress is both inevitable and desirable. Hearings and investigations have an important function and can produce new information -- and, on occasion, significant improvements in government. But we live in an age of “partyism,” and with the presidential election just two years away, the administration may be in for a pretty wild ride.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net