WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is presenting a formidable challenge to the oversight authority of the Democrat-controlled House at a time when the House might not be best equipped for the task.
With Democrats regaining power this year after eight years in the wilderness, not many in the majority have much experience leading panels during a confrontation with the administration.
Few veteran staff members remain who have served in the majority and done the grinding work of jousting with the White House. Staff budgets have been consistently cut for years by Republicans who celebrated the reductions as evidence of austerity while fulfilling their goal of shrinking government. Staff pay is static and can’t compete with what top aides can earn in the private sector on K Street.
“Congress doesn’t have the budget it needs and is facing an extraordinary challenge in getting information from this administration,” said Phil Schiliro, a former staff director of the House oversight panel who, under the chairman Henry Waxman, Democrat of California, conducted major investigations into subjects like deceptive tobacco marketing and steroids in sports and later supervised legislative affairs for President Barack Obama. “The White House is denying legitimate requests in a way no other administration has.”
Recognizing that Congress was at a significant disadvantage in its dealings with the Trump White House and corporate America, Mr. Schiliro; a congressional colleague, Phil Barnett; and a group of former senior Democratic staff members are taking a unique approach to try to fill some of the experience gap. They have formed a nonprofit to volunteer their skill set to the House and Senate as Congress rebuilds its oversight muscle in what is certain to be a continuing clash with the executive branch.
“There was just a real shortage of institutional knowledge and access to expertise,” said Mr. Barnett, who originated the idea with Mr. Schiliro and was staff director on two House committees where he oversaw major inquiries into contracting fraud in Iraq, the 2008 financial collapse and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, among many others.
The two men enlisted eight others with a combined 200 years of experience on Capitol Hill to form Co-Equal, a group intended to help Congress reassert itself as a force equivalent in power to the executive branch, not a subservient arm of it.
It is a bit of a shoestring operation without offices or much in the way of benefits and perks. While the former staff members aren’t household names, they are very well known to congressional insiders. They have ties not only to Mr. Waxman and Mr. Obama, but also to the former Democratic majority leaders Tom Daschle and Harry Reid, as well as to Hillary Clinton, to name a few.
Co-Equal is funded by donors, and those who enlist with it are available to consult with congressional aides seeking guidance on messaging or how to move ahead with inquiries in the face of stiff White House resistance. One requirement of participating is that the staff cannot be engaged in any lobbying.
Mr. Schiliro said the group was open to working with Republicans if their interests align, but that has not yet occurred.
Among the resources the group has made available on its website, Co-Equal.org, is a guide to precedents showing how Congress has in the past pried documents from the White House and won the testimony of influential administration officials, including chiefs of staff, national security advisers and White House counsels.
“It is so that people have a factual resource to look at what has been done in the past so that when somebody makes these outrageous claims that their people should not have to testify you can say, ‘No, no, it is normal for people to have to testify before Congress,’” said Karen Lightfoot, a longtime congressional communications and policy expert who is part of the group.
Members of the group have also been providing training to lawmakers and staff members on that most essential of Capitol Hill skills: how to elicit meaningful information from well-coached hearing witnesses in five-minute rounds of questioning.
Mr. Schiliro noted that outside witnesses under scrutiny from Congress have most likely undergone hours of preparation by experienced lawyers and public relations experts — sometimes in faux hearing rooms to provide verisimilitude — while members of Congress might first be seeing their own questions prepared by staff as they take their seats at the hearing.
Another major project of the group came in the tax realm when it helped develop an analysis that showed the top 1 percent of taxpayers receiving an outsize windfall from Republican tax cuts since 2001 compared with the rest of the country — an analysis pivotal in shaping the Democratic response to the tax cuts.
“Their expertise is highly respected,” said Jonathan Davidson, the chief of staff to Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado, who worked with Co-Equal on tax policy. “They are a small organization that is having a big impact.”
Other top congressional aides agreed that the Co-Equal insights were valuable considering the depleted ranks on Capitol Hill. Staff numbers have been on a downward trajectory since the House takeover by Newt Gingrich-led Republicans in 1994.
In an appeal for more funding in March, Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland and the chairman the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, said that his panel’s budget had been cut by more than $4 million over the past 10 years. He said the committee would exhaust its budget “without coming close” to hiring its allotted staff, leaving at least 25 vacancies.
“Restoring the oversight committee’s funding — which has been slashed by Republicans over the past decade — will send a strong signal the House of Representatives is now taking seriously its oversight responsibilities under the Constitution,” Mr. Cummings said.
Staff reductions are not only at the committee level. Mr. Schiliro noted that 1,000 fewer staff slots exist today than 20 years ago and that personal congressional offices have two fewer staff positions than six years earlier, even while numbers of constituents are increasing in many cases. At the same time, the churn of elections and retirements has left lawmakers with less experience. Just three Democrats had previously led committees before this year, and by Mr. Schiliro’s count, 18 House freshmen — some of whom were never previously in government — are heading subcommittees.
Mr. Schiliro said a lack of experience can play into the hands of not only the White House, but also elements of corporate America that come under congressional scrutiny. Noting that corporate interests spend far more on lobbying Congress than Congress spends on itself, he sees minimizing the oversight power of Congress as a strategic goal of the budget cuts pushed by Republicans.
“The drumbeat to cut congressional funding might sound populist,” he said, “but attempts to weaken Congress are a huge gift to corporations and anyone trying to evade accountability.”
Mr. Schiliro and his partners realize that less than a dozen former staff members can’t replace 1,000 no matter how seasoned. But they believe they can be helpful if they carefully pick their opportunities. Given the tense standoff between the House and the White House, opportunities should be plentiful.