May 31, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: GOP plots '23 probes

Illustration of an angry elephant next to the White House

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Top Republican congressional aides huddled this month with conservative think-tank leaders on Maryland's Eastern Shore to hone tactics and messaging for Biden administration probes, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: If the GOP wins control in the midterms, leaders want to kick off high-profile investigations as soon as the new Congress is seated. Republicans plan to draw on investigative power from allies across Washington.

Details: The retreat was hosted by the Heritage Foundation, the Conservative Partnership Institute and the American Accountability Foundation, a nonprofit run by Trump administration alumni that's dogged Biden nominees with independent investigative work.

  • In attendance were aides to the top Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure, Ways and Means and Oversight committees, as well as a senior aide to Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who is considered a leadership contender.
  • Aides to Senate Banking Committee ranking member Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) also attended.

The big picture: With unified Democratic control in D.C., Republicans have been limited in their efforts to wield Congress' probative powers around high-profile issues such as a southern border immigration surge, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and economic shocks that threaten a U.S. recession.

  • If they win congressional majorities, Republicans plan to use that power in retrospective fashion to dig into Biden administration conduct going back to his inauguration.
  • That will mean a congressional microscope on Biden administration policies and spending. It will also bring stepped-up GOP scrutiny of private sector actors such as tech companies that Republicans see as politically adversarial.

Behind the scenes: Over two days, congressional aides at the retreat got briefings from prominent conservative activists and organizations on a host of investigative tactics.

  • Gene Hamilton, a former senior aide in Trump's Justice Department and a board member of the America First Legal Foundation, briefed staffers on how to use legal experts and the federal court system to conduct research and "advance conservative priorities in the courts."
  • Alexa Walker, the Banks aide and the Republican Study Committee's coalitions director, and Scott Gast, a former senior aide in the Trump White House counsel's office, discussed strategies for coordinating congressional oversight with outside research and investigative groups.
  • Mike Howell and Roman Jankowski of the Heritage Foundation led a training on the Freedom of Information Act.
  • AAF chief Tom Jones briefed attendees on tactics for investigating presidential nominees and appointees.
  • Phil Reboli of CPI trained staffers on effective communications strategies to sell oversight efforts to outside groups and the press.

What they're saying: "We are pleased we brought together senior staff and leading outside researchers to focus on enhancing oversight skills, particularly since we're expecting increased oversight opportunities in the future," Jones said in an emailed statement.

  • "The American people are deeply frustrated by the failed policies and lack of leadership of the Biden Administration. They expect good government groups like ours and Congressional leaders to work together to hold this administration accountable."

Howell, who leads Heritage's Oversight Project, t0ld Axios the goal of the event was to ensure congressional staff members are equipped to kick-start investigations as soon as the new Congress is gaveled in.

  • "What's going to happen next Congress is, you've got to do four years of oversight in two years. That's going to be an immense lift, and it means that they cannot wait to get these committees situated," he said in an interview.
  • "There are thousands of people who served in the Trump administration, myself included, who experienced what was probably the most intense congressional oversight to date," Howell said. They "are now chomping at the bit to deploy these skills that they've learned back at the Biden administration."

Between the lines: The event provides a glimpse of where Republicans see potentially fruitful oversight avenues.

  • Senate Banking has been at the center of Biden nomination fights, with committee Republicans successfully sinking two high-profile nominees.
  • The Oversight Committee, whose chief counsel for oversight attended, has a broad mandate. Its ranking Republican, Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), has recently signaled scrutiny of Biden's immigration policies, his son Hunter’s business dealings abroad and tech companies' ostensible political bias.
  • The Transportation Committee's Republican general counsel wrote in a disclosure filing that the training would help the committee ensure "fiscal stewardship and effective oversight of the recently passed infrastructure bill and other items within T&I's jurisdiction."
  • The Ways and Means Committee, which sent two Republican aides to the retreat, is a powerful panel with oversight jurisdiction over tax and financial policies at the center of a national furor over inflation.

Republican oversight won't be confined to federal agencies or the White House, Howell said.

  • "Big Tech is in the crosshairs," he said. "They're going to be subject to document requests and subpoenas and depositions."
  • Howell pointed to the subpoena power wielded heavily by the Jan. 6 select committee, which has sought private phone and bank records, among other documents.
  • "It's really a whole new frontier that has been opened with a whole bevy of new tactics and techniques, which were once thought out of bounds. They're now going to be a tool in the hands of the other side."
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