One of my volunteer activities is serving on my credit union’s supervisory committee. Our job is to audit bank activities. We make sure that the credit union follows the many rules and laws that govern our business. For instance, we check to make sure that suspicious cash transfers are reported to appropriate law enforcement authorities. This deters criminals from using my credit union for money-laundering. We review loan applications to make sure customers aren’t overcharged or undercharged, as would happen if a loan officer authorized a sweetheart deal in some quid pro quo scheme. Without our examining bank transactions, an unscrupulous employee could put the credit union at risk of running afoul of the law. Oversight prevents bending or breaking the rules that protect the assets our members entrust to us.
Happily, my Credit Union has always passed federal and state audits with flying colors.
The framers of the Constitution saw the need for oversight. They recognized the dangers our nation might face were an unscrupulous person somehow to win an election or be appointed to a position of trust in the federal government. The Constitution outlines checks and balances to assure that no single branch of government can exceed its defined and implied powers. President Woodrow Wilson said about Congress, “quite as important as legislation is vigilant oversight of administration.” He went on to say that investigating the president is “the instruction and guidance in political affairs” that can only occur by keeping “all national concerns suffused in a broad daylight of discussion.” Congressional oversight prevents bending or breaking the rules that protect our democracy.
The Constitutional remedy for extreme misconduct by an elected or appointed official is impeachment. It’s the country’s method for protecting the democracy that our citizens entrust to federal office holders. Presently, the House is engaged in the process of investigating charges that the president has and continues to engage in activities that fall outside legal limits.
The issue at hand is whether the President violated Federal Election Code laws making it unlawful for “a person to solicit, accept, or receive a contribution … from a foreign national.” The events leading up to this investigation have been front-page news for most of the past several weeks. The event that brought the president’s conduct into focus was a whistleblower complaint that in a July 25 call to Ukrainian President Zelensky, he pressured Zelensky to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son. The president released a partial transcript of his conversation, confirming that the allegation’s claims are factual. As more evidence came to light about the president’s dealings with Ukraine, he doubled down on his claim of no wrongdoing and publicly called for China to investigate the Bidens, also a violation of law.
There is much more to this than the president’s soliciting a foreign country to interfere in an American election. Evidence exists that the secretary of state was a listener on that phone call and lied about it. The director of national Intelligence improperly contacted the Department of Justice and failed to timely turn over the whistleblower’s complaint to congressional oversight committees, as the law requires. The attorney general is implicated, as is the vice president, in applying pressure on the Ukrainians to accede to the president’s unlawful demands. Just this past weekend, news broke that a second whistleblower came forward with firsthand knowledge of the events described in the original complaint.
These events compelled House Speaker Pelosi to initiate a formal investigation to decide if sufficient evidence exists to file charges against the president. Not unexpectedly, he has sent out his surrogates to challenge the legitimacy of the investigation and the motivations of the investigators. But in a very real sense, the inquiries mean the House is fulfilling its Constitutional responsibilities. Although the impeachment inquiry is bound to exacerbate our already too-wide political differences, we can be grateful that the House of Representatives is fighting to preserve the rule of law.
The system of checks and balances the framers envisioned, however imperfect it might be, is still holding. The president should not interfere with Congress conducting this inquiry — if he is innocent of wrongdoing, this process is a sure way for him to be exonerated. On the other hand, if there’s evidence that he has committed high crimes and misdemeanors, the American public will have its confidence in government restored, knowing that not even the president can get away with unchecked lawlessness. Either way, this will be a win for democracy.
Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at email@example.com