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Investigating the President: Congressional Checks on Presidential Power, Douglas L. Kriner and Eric Schickler

Reviewed by Andrew Rudalevige


Congress gets no respect. Scholars compete to condemn legislative inaction in the face of presidential expansionism, and for once the ivory tower is in tune with Main Street: public approval of the first branch was at 16 percent in a recent Gallup poll.

Not so fast, say Douglas L. Kriner and Eric Schickler, arguing that existing assessments of the balance of power between the branches has given “short shrift to congressional investigations” into executive branch malfeasance as a means of holding the presidency in check (p. 246). After all, even in a period of “seeming institutional dysfunction,” Congress can “investigate when it cannot legislate” (p. 3). In a nutshell, this book argues that investigations are not rare; they do lead to change; and they are partisan, but less so in the Senate.

The first congressional investigation was a 1791 inquiry into the disastrous St. Clair military expedition. That was also the first politicized congressional investigation: Jeffersonians used the occasion to attack leading Federalists, notably, Secretary of War Henry Knox. Over time, Kriner and Schickler show, investigations systematically lead to declining presidential approval ratings—about 2.5 percent for every 20 days of hearings in a month (p. 88).

But inflicting political damage is only one way in which investigations can shape policy. They also prompt new legislation: the post-Watergate shift in intelligence oversight is one example. Other times, presidents make unilateral changes to appease Congress (and, crucially, the media), as when the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to clean Superfund sites expanded dramatically after 1983 hearings on the subject. Indeed, the potential costs of investigation may cause presidents to act preemptively to forestall them. An intriguing finding here is that periods featuring particularly aggressive investigations seem to constrain the executive in areas unrelated to the topics of congressional inquiry, notably, in limiting presidential inclination to use force abroad. (By contrast, regular oversight hearings do not seem to have the same effect).

The authors reach these conclusions using a new data set compiling close to 12,000 days of investigative hearings over more than a century (1898–2014). The book is a beautifully crafted, if (appropriately) bounded, piece of research. Using both qualitative and quantitative analysis, including experimental data designed to test causality in ways regression cannot, it lays out the political contexts that affect the frequency of investigations and then their consequences. A separate chapter is devoted to the Barack Obama administration, contrasting the Solyndra and Benghazi inquiries in purpose and effect. That the former was not able to attract mainstream media attention, despite blanket coverage on Fox News, is one reason it had little impact on policy or public opinion. The latter, of course, evolved from an examination of bureaucratic foul-up to a partisan vehicle accusing 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (secretary of state at the time of the Benghazi attacks) of little short of murder.

As that case suggests, the ongoing rise in polarization has made it far harder for investigations to produce positive policy change rather than negative approval ratings. Investigations have always been suppressed by unified government—especially in the House—but there have been few to no investigations under unified government in recent years. Kriner and Schickler argue that divided government thus does at least provide for some accountability, even if little legislation. Change in this model comes at the ballot box instead. But, as the current Republican majority may be discovering, a poisoned well makes it hard to legislate even then.

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