Brat Revives Constitution Caucus; Democrats Question Constitutional Oversight

May 10, 2018

Some Virginia Republicans are reviving a dormant congressional caucus aimed at highlighting constitutional obligations, but Democrats accuse them of hypocrisy for failing to conduct simple oversight on the Trump administration.

A large contingent of Congressional Republicans were swept into office in the Tea Party wave of 2010. Their voters were angry at what they labeled executive overreach by then-President Obama and they wanted a new breed of lawmakers to come to Washington to stand up for the nation’s founding principles.

Rep. Dave Brat (R) 7th District
Credit Steve Helber/AP

Central Virginia Republican Congressman Dave Brat wants members to stay focused on those principles so he’s reviving the Congressional Constitution Caucus.  “Obviously, that's the document that represents the founding and then the continuing foundation on which all law is based and so you cannot pay too much attention intellectually and in practice.”

Brat will be leading the caucus and he says even Democrats are welcome. "The Constitution's not partisan. No, that's the whole point. It cuts through the partisanship," Brat says. "So that's why we want to have to caucus."

But Democrats aren’t lining up to join. That’s in part because they say members of the new caucus are currently shirking their Constitutional duty to be a check on the Trump administration. Northern Virginia Representative Gerry Connolly serves on the Oversight Committee and says he and other members of the minority have requested hearings on nearly four dozen separate topics that have been answered with silence. 

“We are the Oversight Committee of the United States Congress," Connolly argues. "Not a single hearing on any of this. Not on Russian interference, not on election security, not on conflicts of interest at the White House, not on ethical objections by cabinet members and sub-cabinet members.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) 11th District
Credit Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Connolly says the GOP is being hypocritical. “When President Obama was in the White House, if he blinked his eye there was an investigation and a hearing and a headline and all of that very breathless kind of coverage. Trump gives us, hell, subjects, half a dozen subjects a day, we could look at and nothing. Zero.”

Now with these new allegations that Trump’s personal lawyer was secretly earning hundreds of thousands off selling access to the White House, Connolly says these mounting scandals are going to play a big role in this year’s elections.  “And that's another reason why the midterm elections are going to be so important," Connolly says. "Will we restore the constitutional obligation of the legislative branch as a separate, but coequal branch, to hold the executive branch accountable irrespective of which party controls the White House?”

But Republicans brush aside the criticisms. "It's 80 percent of 'much ado about nothing' and 20 percent that we need to take a look at," says Southwest Virginia Congressman Morgan Griffith.

Rep. Morgan Griffith (R) 9th District
Credit Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

He says Democrats have become like the boy who cried wolf and see a scandal around every corner or presidential tweet. "I don't think they're legitimate. Look, they've raised so many red herrings that it's hard for us to figure out which ones are real and which ones are fake," Griffith says. "So, you know, we'll sort through that. If we get to the end of the four years and we haven't done that then maybe they can make that legitimate claim, but we're not there and of course.”

And when it comes to the Congressional Constitution Caucus, Congressman Brat says he wants Democrats to come to their meetings and debate these issues and get briefed by legal scholars. But Brat brushes aside most of Democrat’s complaints. “If they're Constitutional issues that's one thing and if they rise to that level, then bring those issues forward. That's what we want to get at, right?"

While the debate over Congress’ role as a check on the White House continues to heat up on Capitol Hill, Democrats are promising to keep the issue on voter’s minds when they enter the voting booth in November.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.