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In the closing weeks of the just-concluded congressional elections, Republican political ads inveighed against the dreaded possibility that a Democratic Congress would launch “congressional investigations” of the Bush administration. Republican leaders urged their rank and file to rally at the polls to prevent a Democratic Congress from, among other things, providing vigorous oversight of the executive branch. As a political matter, these alarm bells went unheeded. Much as they did with President George W. Bush’s assertions that Democrats wanted nothing more than to second-guess his decision-making, the voters rejected the Republicans’ fears and concluded that a dose of oversight — including investigations and some second-guessing — is just the medicine the government needs. This is the correct approach in a republic like ours, the architecture of which is so vitally dependent upon vibrant checks and balances. For six years the congressional leadership has behaved as if it were the ruling party in a parliament and utterly abdicated its responsibility to serve as a brake on either policy missteps or maladministration on the part of the executive branch. It is particularly important, then, that this incoming Congress revive the system of checks and balances that has been read out of our Constitution during the recent reign of one-party rule. NECESSARY OVERSIGHT Throughout our history, and in the administrations of most presidents, Congress has provided necessary oversight. In so doing, it has generally not been the purpose of Congress to harass presidents (though we are familiar with some exceptions). Rather, U.S. history and law reflect a firm belief that congressional oversight is essential to prevent excesses by the executive that might infringe upon our liberties, to promote honest administration of government, and to ensure that the lives and fortunes of the nation are thoughtfully, not cavalierly, put at risk. Thus, congressional investigations of the president are long established. In 1792, President George Washington did not challenge Congress’ request for documents about an expedition in which 600 U.S. soldiers were killed in an attack by Native Americans. Rather, he asked that Thomas Jefferson work out a compromise with Congress that would preserve the executive’s prerogative, while assuring congressional access to the important documents. Since then, congressional oversight of the presidency has continued, though it is often accompanied by (usually) polite jockeying by both branches. The few times these skirmishes have reached the Supreme Court, however, the high court has spoken clearly: Congress’ power to investigate is vital and expansive. The investigative power is not limited to aiding legislation; it also includes the “informing function,” or the power to expose corruption and misfeasance. As the Court stated in Watkins v. United States (1957), “[F]rom the earliest times in its history, the Congress has assiduously performed �an informing function’ of this nature.” ABUSING BILL CLINTON At times, instead of checking and preventing abuse, this vital congressional power has been abused. In 1994, even before taking control of the House of Representatives, soon-to-be Speaker Newt Gingrich was clear about his intent. In their work, the committees and subcommittees of Congress were to portray Democrats as “the enemy of normal Americans,” and a GOP-controlled House would use “subpoena power” to investigate the administration of then-President Bill Clinton to make that case stick. As former White House counsel in the Clinton administration, we can attest to the disruption that ill-motivated congressional investigations can cause to a White House. During the investigation of the White House Travel Office, for example, the White House was forced to research, prepare, and turn over more than 40,000 pages of documents. More than 40 current and former White House aides faced repeated interviews by Republican-led committees. In other investigations, Republican congressional committees repeatedly sought core privileged material, such as the notes of White House lawyers and even a memorandum prepared by White House staff summarizing a discussion between Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. One committee sought documents and interviews about the use of the White House database for invitations to Chelsea Clinton’s sweet-16 birthday party. This sad chapter in the system of checks and balances should be read, however, as aberrational. It does not provide a basis for timidity by the incoming Congress. Reasonable and appropriate congressional oversight is vital to a healthy democracy, no matter which party holds power. Remarkably enough, even as the investigations of alleged wrongdoing in the Clinton administration proceeded, we were able to work with the Republican Congress to pass important legislation balancing the federal budget, reforming welfare, and putting more police on the streets. LONG OVERDUE In the case of the Bush administration, oversight — including appropriate investigation — is long overdue. Even the most judicious of Democratic committee chairs will have a long list of valid topics from which to choose, several of which involve the gross misuse of taxpayer dollars. Has our intelligence community served us well in identifying threats to our national security, or has the intelligence provided to our leaders been tortured and misused by them to justify policies not otherwise supportable? How was it possible that the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq could not account for billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars? Has the government contracting system been abused and subject to cronyism rather than guided by a competitive-bidding process? Were cost predictions on the Medicare prescription-drug bill deliberately misleading? These are all legitimate areas of inquiry. The tendency of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to assert the exclusive authority of the presidency, to maintain a hard line on executive privilege, and to assert limits on the power of Congress vis-�-vis the presidency are well known. This will likely precipitate constitutional clashes with a Democratic Congress determined to reassert a reasonable level of congressional oversight. But a constitutional standoff between this White House and a Democratic Congress should not be the case. Democrats understand that they would pay a political price for excessive investigations. The country is ready to move in a new direction and not spend excessive time looking backward. At the same time, the Bush White House simply must recognize the right and power of Congress to conduct legitimate investigations. In our own government service, we felt the urge to treat congressional inquiries as nakedly partisan inquests. But we also saw the need to balance legitimate claims to presidential privilege against the legitimate claims of the legislative branch. Every White House must retain that balance and endure what may feel like intrusive oversight and meddling by the other branches when those branches act well within their powers. For, in our governmental system, whether in the White House, Congress, or the judiciary, no single branch can stand above the input of the other branches and the public.
Jack Quinn served as counsel to President Bill Clinton from 1995 to 1997, and Jeff Connaughton served as a White House lawyer from 1994 to 1995. They now are co-chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of Quinn Gillespie & Associates, a strategic consulting company in Washington, D.C.

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