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Impeachment Inquiry Demonstrates Struggle For Balance Of Power

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

House Democrats want to hear from five current and former State Department officials. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is trying to delay their appearance. This is one episode in one presidential impeachment proceeding. But Brianne Gorod thinks there could be broad implications here for the balance of power in our country. Gorod wrote about this in The Atlantic. She's chief counsel at the Constitutional Accountability Center in Washington, D.C., and she joins us this morning. Good morning.

BRIANNE GOROD: Hi.

GREENE: So the headline in your piece in The Atlantic says "The Need For Congressional Oversight Goes Far Beyond Impeachment." Be more specific if you don't mind - where is greater oversight really needed?

GOROD: Absolutely. You know, congressional oversight is as old as the Congress itself. Since the nation's beginning, Congress has sought information to help it determine when and how to legislate, to determine whether the executive branch is implementing our nation's laws properly and to hold federal officials accountable for abuses of the public trust. And so, you know, the implications of these fights between this House and this president, you know, extend well beyond the current fight, but really go to our nation's systems of checks and balances and whether Congress as an institution can do its job effectively.

GREENE: I mean, you point out that even within this administration, this impeachment fight is not the first time that President Trump has resisted - I mean, not turning over his tax returns for one thing. So what does this tell us about the way this administration sees the oversight role of Congress?

GOROD: You know, one of the things that has been particularly stunning over the course of this past year is how unprecedented the levels of obstruction and stonewalling from this president and this administration have been. And, you know, what they have done repeatedly is suggest that there is something illegitimate or suspicious about congressional efforts to engage in oversight, to request information from the executive branch. The president tweets about presidential harassment and calls for ends to partisan investigations. We're now seeing those sorts of claims echoed in formal filings by the Department of Justice and letters from the secretary of state.

And it's really deeply troubling because, you know, again, it flips the way things should work on its head. You know, congressional oversight is not something new. It's something that Congress has done since the beginning; it's something that the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized is legitimate. It's said repeatedly that Congress' power to investigate is broad, and again, that's because Congress can't do its job unless it has that power.

GREENE: But these fights, aren't they also something that's not new? I mean, haven't past administrations used these tactics? I remember all the headlines during the Obama administration - Republicans in Congress fighting over subpoenas, fighting the Obama White House over the use of executive privilege. So what makes Trump's resistance extraordinary in your mind?

GOROD: Just how broad it is. I mean, it's certainly right that past presidents have sometimes, you know, disagreed with Congress about what in particular they need to turn over and have made claims of privilege, as you say. But the level of obstruction that we're seeing here is really something of a different kind altogether. You know, the president promised that they wouldn't comply at all. And we've seen this administration refusing to comply with even the most routine oversight requests.

You know, it's easy, given all of the focus on the president's abuses of the public trust and the impeachment inquiry, to think that all of these oversight activities are focused on this president in particular, but a lot of what Congress is doing and has been doing over the course of the past year is engaging in oversight more broadly. You know, it's held hundreds of hearings. It's sent hundreds of letters requesting information on education policy, trade policy, natural disasters in the wake of climate change. So what's really unique here is just how - what's really unique here is the level of obstruction that we're seeing from this president and this administration.

GREENE: You talk about the possibility of real precedent here going years beyond this president. What makes you so worried about that? Why are you worried that future presidents might see President Trump and his resistance as some kind of model?

GOROD: You know, in this area, as in so many others, the president and now lawyers representing his interests seem to suggest that the normal rules don't apply for him - apply to him. And the real danger, I think, is that they change what the normal rules are. You know, his lawyers are making arguments in court, the DOJ is now making arguments in court that, if they were accepted, could really undermine Congress' ability to engage in oversight, to engage in the sorts of oversight it needs to determine when and how to legislate, to determine when there are abuses of the public trust.

And that's what's really dangerous because, again, congressional oversight is essential to our nation's system of checks and balances. Our system assumes that Congress can get the information it needs to legislate, and it assumes that Congress can act as a check on the executive branch. And that's what's really at stake here.

GREENE: You said that courts in the past have often sided with Congress. Could you really see some of the fights we're seeing today even reach the Supreme Court and, in theory, this court siding with the executive branch?

GOROD: Well, it's certainly the case that I think one of these oversight fights could reach the Supreme Court. You know, there are a couple of cases that are pending in the intermediate appellate courts right now, and no matter who wins or loses there, it's, I think, entirely possible that one side will bring it to the court. But I think it's very unlikely at the court that we'll see a win for the executive branch because, again, the arguments that they're making are just so unprecedented and so out of line with what the Supreme Court has repeatedly said in the past - that Congressional oversight is broad and is essential.

GREENE: Brianne Gorod of the Constitutional Accountability Center in our studios in Washington, thanks so much.

GOROD: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.