Politics & Government

Trey Gowdy pledges to be a ‘different’ sort of watchdog. But can he be effective?

U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., is the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., is the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. AP

It’s long been considered the House bomb-throwing committee, a panel known for investigating everything, no matter how outrageous or far-fetched things seem.

That’s changed. Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican known for his judicious temperament and tough-minded but fair approach to investigations — and his loyalty to GOP leadership — is now in charge of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Unlike his predecessors, he’s not angling for a national spotlight or seeking to be a trending social media favorite.

He is exactly what House Speaker Paul Ryan needs in the era of Donald Trump, where Republicans want to appear serious about going after the president when it’s appropriate — but not so serious they risk alienating their base or undermining their own party’s administration.

So while Gowdy, a former prosecutor and solicitor back home, has sent letters to the White House to inquire about staffers’ use of private emails and Cabinet secretaries’ use of private jets, he has yet to hold a public hearing on any of the myriad scandals that have plagued the Trump administration over the past 10 months.

“The biggest complaint I hear back home is, ‘You have hearings and nothing comes from them,’” said Gowdy of his frequent preference for closed-door business. “It is universal criticism, no matter what district I’m in, someone will ask. And that’s for two reasons. One is, we’re not up front with people. Two is, with high profile hearings, we flail our arms for five minutes and don’t follow up.”

And as for why his committee isn’t currently investigating anything related to possible collusion between Trump associates and Russian meddlers in the 2016 election, Gowdy has the ultimate explanation: He’s already a member of the Intelligence Committee, and it’s already actively pursuing a formal inquiry.

Gowdy has only been chairman since late June. Congress took a month off in August and has taken off two more full weeks since Labor Day, meaning he has less than three full months of a legacy to judge so far.

But members of both parties are watching closely — and keeping score.

‘I warned everybody I was going to be different’

Historically, Republican chairmen of the committee during Democratic administrations have gone after the incumbent president with considerable zeal and fanfare. And made sure the media was aware of every move.

Former Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., was chairman during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and one investigation involved whether President Bill Clinton’s administration had anything to do with the 1993 death of a Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster. For effect, Burton re-enacted his version of the incident in his backyard by shooting a watermelon — a stand-in for Foster’s head.

During Rep. Darrell Issa’s chairmanship from 2011 to 2014, the California Republican branded himself as President Barack Obama’s chief antagonist. His tenure involved holding two members of the administration in contempt of Congress and, in one ugly episode, he cut off his ranking member’s microphone, resulting in Democratic attempts at censure.

Issa’s term ended in 2015 and he was replaced by then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who used the chairmanship primarily as a means to advance his national profile. His departure over the summer for a job with Fox News came as little surprise.

Gowdy, who replaced Chaffetz, differs from all three men in terms of temperament and background. While he won points with conservatives for his leadership on the committee investigating the 2012 deaths of Americans in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, he’s also a veteran attorney who believes in finding the facts first.

Also, in cases of Burton, Issa and Chaffetz, Republican leaders wanted them to be partisan attack dogs against Democratic administrations. Gowdy has a very different mandate.

Former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., whose chairmanship between 2003 and 2007 coincided with the George W. Bush administration, knows this dynamic.

“[Gowdy’] going to get a lot of criticism from Democrats for not going after Trump enough,” said Davis, who has been in touch with Gowdy to offer advice. “The reality is, when the president’s party controls the House, you tend to under-investigate.”

In a recent interview with McClatchy, Gowdy was defensive about his record so far, dismissing critics’ insinuations that, just because the committee wasn’t making primetime news, it was shirking its duties.

So far, Gowdy has shepherded 14 bills through the panel and convened 14 public hearings, nearly all of which have fallen under the “government reform” umbrella of the committee’s purview — the 2020 census, the criminal justice system and cybersecurity challenges, for instance.

“It’s not that I’m not having hearings. It’s that I’m not having hearings on what y’all want,” Gowdy said. “What you haven’t seen is a lot of theater.”

Gowdy has also sent a total of 42 letters to executive branch officials on a range of topics, from the Michigan drinking water crisis to rising prescription drug prices. These, and many others, have been co-signed by top committee Democrat Elijah Cummings of Maryland.

If reporters and lawmakers are eager for higher-profile committee action — on the administration’s use of private email servers and lavish travel, for instance — they will have to wait. Gowdy has made clear that thorough investigations will precede all hearings, and those probes can often take months.

He did, however, threaten on Oct. 18 to subpoena documents from the Secretary of Agriculture and Attorney General should they continue to ignore requests for materials related to their private travel habits.

“I come from a system where at the end is when you make up your mind. … This is exactly the way I did it for 16 years,” Gowdy said, alluding to his lawyer days. “I warned everybody I was going to be different.”

Information or drama?

Democrats worry this “wait and see” approach is just another Republican excuse not to go after Trump in public.

They also argued Gowdy, as a rank-and-file member of the panel, had no trouble hounding Democratic witnesses from the Obama administration and seemed to relish the role.

“You got a new religion that says, ‘We don’t do that’?” said committee Democrat Gerald Connolly of Virginia. “Could that have anything to do with the fact that you’re the new chairman in the Trump era?”

Even some Republicans, such as Issa, suggested Gowdy shouldn’t limit his investigations.

“You’re supposed to investigate anything, anywhere, anytime,” he said.

Recently, committee Democrats were clamoring for a hearing on the federal response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and why assistance was slow to reach so many devastated areas. Gowdy denied Democrats this request but arranged a phone briefing with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, which he called “constructive” and “helpful.”

“Do you want the information, or do you want the drama? I prefer the information,” Gowdy said.

Cummings, who said he has a good relationship with Gowdy, agreed the briefing was useful. He cautioned, however, that it wasn’t a substitute for a full hearing — especially when it comes to Trump-related matters.

“I think there are some things that need to be in a public hearing because I think the public needs to know exactly what is going on with their government,” Cummings said. “I’m hoping this is not an effort to protect Trump at the expense of the American people.”

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain