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EDITORIAL: Where is Congress on oversight purge?

Patrick DeLany
York Dispatch
The Capitol is illuminated at sunrise in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Lost amid the economic, employment and public-health catastrophes that are the global coronavirus pandemic — or, obscured by them anyway — has been President Donald Trump’s recent assault on federal oversight.

In recent weeks, Trump has:

  • Fired Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general who communicated a whistleblower complaint to Congress that resulted in the president’s impeachment.
  • Ousted acting Inspector General of the Defense Department Glenn Fine, who had been set to head the committee overseeing how the government allocates some $2 trillion in coronavirus relief aid.
  • Harshly criticized Health and Human Services Inspector General Christi Grimm, suggesting a report from her office that described widespread coronavirus testing delays and supply shortages at the nation’s hospitals was politically motivated.

Add to these actions the signing statement that Trump issued following his approval of the coronavirus relief bill. In it, he claims authority to dictate what information the inspector general overseeing allocation of $500 billion in corporate aid can report to Congress, thus sidestepping intended congressional safeguards against abuse.

The moves reflect a president who wrongly believes his “total" authority extends far beyond the ability he claimed this week to order governors reopen their states.

In the case of Atkinson, especially, Trump continues an ongoing purge of government officials who, in following the law, played a role in the impeachment proceedings over the president’s dealings with Ukraine.

But it is Trump’s insistence, in both word and deed, that he is above oversight — above the law — that his campaign of inspector general disses and dismissals most troublingly represents.

Independent federal watchdogs play a vital role in helping Congress exercise its constitutional oversight duties regarding the executive branch. With that in mind you’d expect Congress to be screaming bloody blue murder over the president’s campaign of defiance.

You’d expect that, but you wouldn’t see much evidence of it.

Yes, a bipartisan group of eight senators sent a strongly worded letter to the president, citing a 2008 law in demanding an explanation for Atkinson’s dismissal by April 13. The White House blew them off. This is what happens when you let an administration ignore subpoenas for records and testimony.

Congressional Democrats, led by House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, have been full-throated in their criticism of Trump’s power play. And credit GOP Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Rob Portman of Ohio for speaking up. They wrote Trump urging him to nominate permanent (i.e., approved by the Senate) replacements, rather than the acting office-holders the president is so fond of.

But too many of their Republican colleagues have remained silent. They do so at their own peril — and at the nation’s.

While GOP lawmakers continue to cede their role as a co-equal branch of government, the citizenry is left to trust the most untrustworthy president ever to hold the office in matters regarding the country’s finances and public health.

“I cannot see how any inspector general will feel in any way safe to do a good job,” Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight told the New York Times in assessing Trump’s recent dismissals. “They are all at the mercy at what the president feels.”

Inspectors general provide invaluable assurances against government waste, abuse and corruption — traits by which the current administration is all but defined. By refusing to stand up to the president’s persistent efforts to avoid oversight, congressional Republicans are failing to carry out their constitutional responsibilities, failing to protect the interests of their constituents and failing to constrain a reckless and often lawless chief executive.

In short, they are failing America.