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This Watchdog Doesn't Bark at Republicans

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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Representative Jason Chaffetz, who has primary oversight responsibilities in the U.S. House, styles himself a zealous believer in executive-branch accountability and an advocate of state- and local-government authority.

Except when it's politically inconvenient, apparently. The Utah Republican led ferocious congressional investigations of alleged abuses by federal officials during the administrations of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Now that Donald Trump is about to take over, he seems to have lost his zeal.

Chaffetz is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which used its almost-unlimited investigative jurisdiction to probe Clinton's use of a private e-mail server while at the State Department, says he has no interest in going on "fishing expeditions" to examine the incoming administration of President Donald Trump. This from the man who announced plans to keep the e-mail probe alive in 2017, even after Clinton's electoral defeat and the closing of the matter by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Instead, he has aimed his fire at the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics, whose director had the temerity to criticize Trump's announced plan to address conflicts-of-interest involving his business. Many Republican and Democratic government-ethics specialists agree with the ethics director, Walter Shaub, that Trump's plan to turn over management of his company to his children falls short of accepted conflict-of-interest standards. Yet Shaub's criticism infuriated Chaffetz.

"Jason is determined to protect Trump at all costs, a remarkable transformation," charged his Democratic colleague on the committee, Gerald Connolly of Virginia. "This actually is going to hurt them eventually; they would be better served to come clean on this stuff now."  

So it seems now that there will be minimal House oversight, if any, of the Trump administration. That's a break from past practice, when congressional leaders like two of Chaffetz's predecessors, Republican Tom Davis and Democrat Henry Waxman, worked together often to scrutinize federal practices on a bipartisan basis.

Chaffetz also claims to be a fan of reducing federal responsibilities over public land in his home state and turning them over to state and local governments. He blasted Obama for creating national monuments last month, noting that most Utah officials were opposed. He anticipates a Trump administration policy "that garners local support." He also says he's favorably disposed to turning some current federal programs over to the states.

That philosophy can be situational. Chaffetz is leading a congressional effort to overturn a District of Columbia law that allows doctors to help end the lives of terminally ill patients. That law was approved overwhelmingly by the D.C. city council and mayor. (Six states have similar provisions.)

It seems that Chaffetz thinks Uncle Sam knows best only when he agrees with Republicans. The congressman probably wouldn't put it that way, but I can't be sure because his office did not return several requests for comment on these issues.

Overcoming principle when there's political heat isn't new to Chaffetz. Last October, when a videotape emerged showing Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, Chaffetz rushed to the cameras to declare that he could no longer support his party's nominee and still face his 15-year-old daughter. Two and a half weeks later, after taking flak from conservatives, he said he was voting for Trump after all. He didn't say what he told his daughter.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net