If there’s anything House Republicans have promised to deliver on this term, it’s investigations — lots of them.
After retaking the House majority this year, the GOP is using its platform to do all it can to scrutinize the Biden administration. Already, lawmakers have held hearings on border security, Twitter’s handling of a story related to Hunter Biden’s laptop, and alleged biases that the federal government has against conservatives.
Many of these inquiries are dedicated to damaging the president, a strategy that’s tried and true. In a study of 53 years of congressional investigations, political scientists Douglas Kriner and Eric Schickler found that the more time Congress spent on hearings into potential executive branch misconduct, the lower the president’s approval rating became. Per their study, if lawmakers spent 20 days per month on investigative hearings, the president’s approval rating would see a commensurate decline of 2.5 percent in that timeframe.
Kriner notes that this trend is historical; it may not hold as the public has gotten more polarized in recent years and media ecosystems more siloed. But if a similar dynamic emerged ahead of 2024, Republican investigations might hurt Biden’s already-low approval ratings.
As members of the House majority, Republicans have gained key powers and a bigger platform to make their case. Now, GOP lawmakers are able to subpoena witnesses and documents, as well as hold public hearings in the hopes of generating news coverage and viral moments that cast Biden and his policies in a critical light. In the process, however, Republicans also run the risk of backlash from moderate members and voters if they go too far with their rhetoric.
GOP leaders, for their part, have said the intention of these investigations is to bring awareness to the administration’s policies and serve out their responsibility of checking the White House. “I think accountability is the most important point, but first you’ve got to get the facts out,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise told Fox News about the need to investigate border policy.
Democrats, obviously, see things differently. “It’s a phony operation from beginning to end designed to further their partisan political interests,” Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, told Vox.
When the White House’s party loses the House, investigations follow
After a “blue wave” midterm elections in 2018, House Democrats set up multiple inquiries to look into President Donald Trump, including reviewing his family separation policy, potential ties between his campaign and Russia, and whistleblower allegations about how he sought to influence Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Democrats emphasize, however, that Trump and his businesses have faced multiple investigations over other possible crimes, and argue that the impetus for their inquiries is not comparable to Republicans’ rationale for investigating Biden.
During the Obama administration, House Republicans also launched multiple investigations, including one that dove into the White House’s response to the Benghazi consulate terrorist attack. That review ultimately opened up potent lines of attack on Democrats’ 2016 presidential nominee, Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Despite concluding that there was no new evidence of wrongdoing by Clinton, the panel discovered that Clinton had used a private email server while secretary of state, a finding that spurred another investigation by the FBI, which became a central issue Republicans used against her in the 2016 election.
“All of that was designed to bring Hillary Clinton’s approval ratings down because Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, was in the high 60s, and they were terrified of that knowing she was going to run for president,” says Connolly.
In the past, presidential family members like President Jimmy Carter’s brother Billy Carter have been the subject of congressional investigations, but the House Republicans’ focus on Hunter Biden, Biden’s son, is rarer in recent memory, according to Claire Leavitt, a Smith College government professor who previously worked as a fellow under Democrats on the House Oversight Committee. Leavitt added that the approach Republicans take to the public hearings could also set the tone for how substantive they are and how the public receives them.
“Having bomb-throwers like [Marjorie Taylor] Greene and [Lauren] Boebert on the House Oversight Committee will almost certainly make the hearings appear more overtly politicized — that is, investigations will appear more like inappropriate attacks on the president’s family than as serving a legitimate investigative purpose — than they otherwise would be,” says Leavitt.
What House Republicans are investigating
Hunter Biden: Republicans have sought to find information suggesting that the president was involved in his son’s business enterprises and that he’s been influenced by them, neither of which they have found any evidence of.
Despite this, House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer (R-KY) has noted that he’s committed to exploring whether Biden’s family’s business deals “occurred at the expense of American interests” and if they could pose a “national security threat.”
Specific concerns that Republicans have raised include work that Hunter Biden has done involving a deal with a Chinese energy company and his role sitting on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company. They argue that Hunter used his father’s name to secure business deals but have thus far not tied the president to these arrangements. The alleged contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop, which were broadly disclosed by conservatives after he left it at a Delaware repair shop and which purportedly address some of these business ventures, are set to be examined as well.
Republican efforts in this investigation are just getting underway. In early February, Comer called on Hunter Biden to submit records of communications with the president about his financial dealings as well as additional documents like bank statements. The Oversight Committee has also requested documents from the president’s brother James Biden, who has worked with Hunter Biden in the past, and Eric Schwerin, who is Hunter Biden’s business partner. Hunter Biden’s attorney, Abbe Lowell, has questioned the “legitimate legislative purpose” that the committee has to ask for these records, and noted that he would sit down with the committee to see what relevant information they can provide, if any.
Comer said the investigation could help the committee develop federal ethics policy, in an attempt to give it a clearer legislative purpose. One of the panel’s earliest hearings examined whether Twitter mishandled a New York Post story about the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop and tried to censor its distribution. Former executives at the company testified that they had made a mistake by restricting the sharing of the story, but said that they had not been told by government officials to do so.
Border security: The first hearing from the House Judiciary committee centered on border security, an issue that Republicans have long sought to go after Democrats on because they argue that the White House’s immigration policies have been ineffective.
This panel and others intend to press the administration on the increase in migrants entering the country at the southern border and the trafficking of fentanyl, which has contributed to a high number of fatalities in the US. Republicans are eager to return to harsher Trump-era policies, including the construction of a border wall, which they describe as focused on deterrence.
A segment of Republicans has also said they’d like to push for the impeachment of DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on the grounds that he has failed to effectively address the border policy, a suggestion that’s drawn pushback from Democrats.
Given how central messaging on immigration has been to Republican campaigns in the past, these committees give them another venue to criticize Biden’s stances on the issue and try to make it a key vulnerability for the president in 2024.
“Weaponization of the federal government”: This newly created panel is aimed at reviewing long-held Republican concerns that government agencies like the Justice Department and FBI are biased against them, claims which federal officials have rebutted.
“This special subcommittee is going to deal with issues that date back before this administration, but have been clearly recognized,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), a top Republican on the panel, told Vox.
These anxieties have been spurred by issues like the FBI’s raid of Mar-a-Lago for classified documents that Trump had declined to turn over to the National Archives and what Republicans have described as the FBI’s targeting of January 6 rioters. The panel is an opportunity to discuss how conservatives have been unfairly treated, Republicans argue, though Democrats have argued that it’s simply another chance for them to use their perch to elevate conspiracy theories and unfounded allegations.
Biden documents: The recent discovery of classified documents at Biden’s Wilmington, Delaware, home and the Penn Biden Center, a think tank where he worked after the vice presidency, are another avenue that Republicans hope to explore. Notably, Biden’s approach to the classified documents has been very different from Trump’s in that he has fully cooperated and turned documents over to the National Archives and DOJ that have been found.
Since the discovery of the documents, the DOJ has also appointed special counsel Robert Hur to look into the matter. The Oversight Committee has requested the records of visitors at Biden’s home in Wilmington, something which the White House has said it’s unable to provide because such logs weren’t kept.
The discovery of the classified documents in Biden’s possession offers a way for Republicans to try to deflect the focus on Trump’s decision to hang onto classified documents while also painting the current president as careless with his own files.
Afghanistan: The House Foreign Affairs Committee is working on a review of the administration’s exit from Afghanistan in 2021, a move that garnered major criticism for the rushed and messy evacuation of US allies and refugees.
The panel has begun by requesting documents from the State Department about the lead-up to the withdrawal, how the administration addressed it, and what the outcome has been in Afghanistan since. “America’s adversaries have been emboldened and the country has once again become a safe haven for terrorists,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the Foreign Affairs Committee chair, has argued, regarding the White House’s approach to the withdrawal.
The Afghanistan withdrawal received bipartisan criticism when it took place, although it’s not yet apparent that Republican oversight is dedicated to fully reviewing these concerns or simply seeding doubts about Biden’s approach to foreign policy and national security.
Covid-19: The origins of Covid-19, and how the Biden administration responded during the pandemic, are another subject that Republicans intend to scrutinize with testimony from health policy officials and scientists in the coming weeks. A select committee on the “coronavirus crisis” will be dedicated to this effort.
“The panel is ... expected to focus on claims, unsupported by evidence, that a laboratory in Wuhan, China, either bioengineered or accidentally released SARS-CoV-2 obtained from bats,” Science reports. In a recent hearing, acting NIH director Lawrence Tabak stressed that US-funded research at a Wuhan lab did not cause the pandemic.
Republicans have frequently attacked the Biden administration’s response to the pandemic and actively opposed policies it supported, including masking and vaccines. This committee is set to be another opportunity for the GOP to advance such rhetoric and to paint Democrats as opposed to “personal liberty.”
US-China policy: A new Select Committee on China is aimed at evaluating “strategic competition” between the two countries as lawmakers examine how the US can invest in its supply chain and research, and be less reliant on manufacturing and other services done abroad.
Lawmakers have cautioned that panels like this shouldn’t be used to advance xenophobia and racial profiling in the US, issues that have been byproducts of the Justice Department’s “China Initiative,” which has accused Chinese American scientists of espionage.
“This committee should not be used as an open invitation to engage in blatantly xenophobic anti-China rhetoric … and to promote policies that result in the racial profiling of our communities,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D–CA), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
The discovery and shooting down of a Chinese balloon hovering high over the United States has also renewed tensions between the two countries, which is likely to be a focus of the panel as well. Already, Republicans have used the balloon incident to allege that Biden is too “soft on China,” allowing the country to gain manufacturing, technological, diplomatic, and economic advantages over the US, a critique they could well use this panel to levy again this term.
Fraud in pandemic relief funds: Republicans have said they are intent on evaluating how pandemic relief funding was doled out, and how billions of dollars may not have reached the small businesses they were intended to help. Experts have estimated that $80 billion in programs like the Paycheck Protection Program were taken by fraudsters, according to NBC News.
This investigation is among those in which there is interest from both parties in addressing these problems, which affected initiatives that were set up under both the Trump and Biden administrations.
The GOP, however, has argued that Democrats haven’t done enough to root out the fraud in these programs, leading them to cast Biden and his party as being unconcerned with government spending. There is currently bipartisan support in trying to figure out how to prevent these gaps from being exploited again.