For the first time in his presidency Tuesday night, U.S. President Joe Biden will address a Congress under divided party rule.
Republicans who hold a slim majority in the House of Representatives have already issued the first subpoenas in one of many investigations just getting under way based on accusations the White House has abused its power.
“I do not think any American believes that justice should not be equal to all,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters last week. “We found from this administration, what happened before every single election, whatever comes out, that they utilize to try to falsify... they try to have different standards for their own beliefs. That doesn't work in America.”
Republicans argue the Biden administration has abused its power in several ways and plans to conduct investigatory hearings. The House Judiciary Committee, headed by Representative Jim Jordan, launched hearings into the Biden administration’s border security last week.
“Month after month after month, we have set records for migrants coming into the country. And frankly, I think it's intentional,” Jordan said. “I don't know how anyone with common sense or logic can reach any other conclusion. It seems deliberate. It seems premeditated.”
One of the Republican-majority House’s first acts was to establish a Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. The subcommittee – along an entirely party-line vote – has a mandate to investigate the use of information on U.S. citizens by executive branch agencies. Republicans will investigate their allegations that U.S. government agencies targeted conservative supporters of former President Donald Trump.
“The goal, the principle is that the president, like every other American citizen, is not above the law. And congressional hearings are one way to ensure that the president does not put himself above the law,” Ken Hughes, a historian with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, told VOA.
Hughes said that in the past, Congress has been able to conduct productive investigations even in eras of divided party rule.
“Even in a polarized era, congressional investigation can do some good, but in order for you to have ... a truly beneficial impact, both parties have to cooperate.”
With Democrats maintaining their control of the Senate, the prospect of any legislative solutions coming out of the House investigations is highly unlikely.
“Nobody really expects that were the House Republican majority to come up with a rule about how DOJ could do investigations, to pass a law, it's dead on arrival in the Senate,” Sarah Binder, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told VOA. “There's a broad realm here for lawmakers to use the subpoena power to force people to come to speak to them, even though no one expects a real lesson of change to occur because of those investigations.”
Democrats have already said Republican investigations unfairly target Biden and distract Congress from important work of legislating.
“It’s very unfortunate that we’ve seen this extreme MAGA Republican agenda which is apparently anchored in impeachment and investigations focused on witch hunts, not on working families,” Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries told reporters last month. MAGA stands for Make America Great Again, a phrase associated with former President Donald Trump, who has announced his intention to run for the White House in 2024.
Chief among Democrats’ concerns are investigations into Biden’s family, including his son, Hunter Biden, who is alleged to have unfairly benefited from his father’s political position. Republicans have also already launched investigations into the use of congressionally appropriated funds combating the COVID-19 crisis and other issues of government waste. At a House Oversight Committee hearing last week, Republican Rep. James Comer said the oversight was long overdue.
“We're going to be returning this committee to its core mission. And that is to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not being mismanaged, abused or wasted, to shine a light in the darkness of the federal bureaucracy to prevent corruption and self-dealing to make sure our federal government is working efficiently for the American people.”
The discovery of classified documents at Biden’s Delaware residence dating back to his time as vice president in the Obama administration will also come under investigation in the U.S. House. With just a year to go until the first 2024 presidential election primaries, Republicans will be seeking to keep the focus on Biden.
But Hughes, who specializes in studying abuses of presidential power, told VOA the classified documents issue now clearly impacts both parties.
“For the last decade or so we've seen a lot of political rhetoric about the danger of mishandling classified information, and almost no actual damage to national security as a result," Hughes said. "It doesn't mean that it's OK for officials and former officials to mishandle classified information, but I think we need perspective on it. And it does no harm. If the information in the classified documents doesn't fall into the hands of foreign powers, particularly the hostile powers, then we're talking about an interaction rather than a crime.”
Investigations can be a way of bringing down presidential approval ratings, but the opposite party has to be careful about appearing too partisan, Binder told VOA.
“Congressional investigations we can show historically do dampen presidential approval, right? They can really tarnish what the public thinks about the president,” she said.
“The question is whether the public sees through that. Democrats won't be convinced. And the question then is Republicans – do they care about the work of Hunter Biden? We’ll see, depending how far that investigation goes.”