Inside the House GOP’s Turf War Over Biden Investigations

When the House Energy and Commerce Committee convened a hearing in February focused on the origins of COVID-19—and unproven theories about direct U.S. support for Chinese virus research—it seemed like a natural focus for Republicans on a panel with broad jurisdiction over public health and the medical world.House Republicans had already acknowledged that Energy and

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When the House Energy and Commerce Committee convened a hearing in February focused on the origins of COVID-19—and unproven theories about direct U.S. support for Chinese virus research—it seemed like a natural focus for Republicans on a panel with broad jurisdiction over public health and the medical world.

House Republicans had already acknowledged that Energy and Commerce would take the lead on this investigation. During a private talk to Hill staff and lobbyists in January, Rep. James Comer (R-KY)—chairman of the House Oversight Committee—said the COVID origins probe was Energy and Commerce’s domain, according to a source familiar with his remarks.

But it didn’t take long for Comer’s own powerful committee, with its mandate to investigate virtually anything, to begin barking up the same trees.

On Feb. 13, Comer—along with a special subcommittee Republicans created to focus on COVID—sent a letter to EcoHealth Alliance, a research nonprofit that collaborated with Chinese researchers, requesting much of the same information that Energy and Commerce had already requested from the nonprofit in its own letter.

And after The Wall Street Journal reported this week that U.S. officials believe a leak in Wuhan, China, was the likely source of the pandemic’s outbreak, Comer sprang into further action. He announced Oversight had “expanded” its investigation into the origins of COVID. His committee fired off fresh letters to the Secretary of Energy, the Secretary of State, and the FBI director.

Call it a mad-dash turf war or call it cooperative force multiplication, but House Republicans seem to be taking a Venn Diagram approach to investigations.

Oversight has quickly become a primary focus of the GOP’s new House majority, which realizes that investigations may be their sharpest political weapon under divided government.

But with Republicans staking so much on their role as the chief investigators of the Biden administration, ambitious lawmakers seem to be scrambling to grab as much jurisdictional territory as possible.

From COVID origins to the U.S-Mexico border to Ukraine aid and social media “censorship,” Republicans on different House committees are all jockeying to plant their flags on the most coveted political turf for the party.

Since the start of February, for instance, five different GOP-controlled House committees have held public hearings focusing on the southern border, some of which shared the same witnesses. Three different committees, meanwhile, have sent a combined 1src letters requesting documents or testimony from Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

Beyond that, three different committees have probed U.S. aid to Ukraine, and two different committees are set to hold separate hearings on the “Twitter Files,” internal company files released by CEO Elon Musk last year.

Republicans insist that there’s no squabbling as each committee’s ambitious leaders try to flex their muscles.

“The more the merrier,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which is active on several investigative fronts. “You’ve got government doing so many things that are political, going after the American people, that you need anybody and everybody getting facts on the table so we can find legislative solutions.”

But according to some close observers, the more the merrier isn’t always an effective approach to oversight.

“We’re not seeing a coordinated oversight strategy just yet,” said Tim Stretton, director of the Congressional Oversight Initiative at the Project on Government Oversight, and a former aide to Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). “I hope that changes very soon.”

“I’d encourage some of these committees to better communicate and strategize with each other,” Stretton added. “The problem that can arise is when [oversight] is not coordinated, things get duplicated, and it becomes hard for the public to follow what’s actually going on.” GOP committee leaders, like Jordan, say they are communicating, but the Ohio Republican didn’t exactly specify how.

Democrats, meanwhile, have chalked up the GOP’s early oversight moves as pure chaos. They believe that’s making it easier for them to effectively respond to probes they believe are solely motivated to damage President Joe Biden.

“It certainly shows a lack of discipline—they’re pretty much not coordinating among themselves,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who led some of Democrats’ most sensitive investigations during the Trump era. “But it will simplify our task… we’ll be pushing back hard.”

The story of committees angling for their own slices of the most important and hot-button issues is an age-old, bipartisan tale in Congress. But when it comes to this GOP majority under Speaker Kevin McCarthy, however, there’s a deeper aspect to this story.

When Democrats last controlled the chamber, there was intense competition among chairs for leadership of probes into Donald Trump’s administration. But then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi tightly managed the maneuvering, minimizing overlap and competition.

Clearly, McCarthy has not done the same. While leadership may believe a more-the-merrier approach will get results, it’s also true that oversight will be a critical tool for them to manage a fractious, unwieldy group of lawmakers. Most importantly for the speaker, letting his committees run free may help keep his most troublemaking lawmakers occupied.

But McCarthy’s critics contend that laissez-faire approach is more reflective of an “incredibly weak speakership,” as Schiff put it, that “lacks the power to referee disputes among different chairs in different committees.”

McCarthy’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Jordan, however, indicated that the speaker’s lack of a heavy-handed approach has been welcome. “Kevin’s idea is, you empower the members and empower committees,” he told The Daily Beast. “Let them do their job.”

Despite the early jostling over COVID, the hottest oversight issue for Republicans is unquestionably the U.S-Mexico border, which is currently seeing an influx of migrants that is straining the immigration system and communities in both countries. Every eager GOP committee chair and member wants to find a way to own an issue that is the top concern of their base and a potential weak point for Biden.

While some panels have played on the issue while staying in their jurisdictional lanes, several are playing in the same sandboxes.

The bulk of the crossfire is happening between the Judiciary and Homeland Security Committees—which have jurisdiction over immigration law and the border, respectively—and the Oversight Committee, which can investigate virtually anything.

In the month of February, the three panels each held at least one hearing decrying Biden’s “border crisis.” Hearings in Judiciary and Homeland Security both featured testimony from different Arizona sheriffs—and the same hospital executive from the border town of Yuma, Arizona.

Four different committees, as well as a delegation led by McCarthy, have held events or meetings at the border, ranging from a Judiciary field hearing in Yuma to a “border boot camp” held by the Homeland Security panel, in which lawmakers met with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents and flew in helicopters over the border wall.

Though oversight of the Department of Homeland Security primarily belongs to the Homeland Security Committee, the Oversight Committee has kept a frenetic pace of hearings and letters putting scrutiny on the department. That began in January, when Republicans rechristened the panel’s Subcommittee on National Security as the Subcommittee on National Security, the Border, and Foreign Affairs.

In February, Comer held a hearing featuring two top CBP officers, and he has sent seven different letters to Mayorkas on various topics since mid-January.

Asked for comment on how Oversight’s investigation may differ from other committees’ probes on COVID and the border, a spokesperson for Comer accused Democrats of failing on their oversight responsibilities, making room for GOP probes. “With the lack of oversight for two years, there is no shortage of issues for Congress to address,” they said. “Many of these issues have a nexus to several committees of jurisdiction.”

“Chairman Comer continues to coordinate with Oversight Committee Republicans, House Committee Chairs, and House Republican leadership to ensure President Biden and his administration is held accountable,” the spokesman said.

For now, many rank-and-file House Republicans don’t seem troubled by the oversight overlap, or the potential that committees are separately doing the same work.

Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND), a member of the Oversight Committee, argued that Democrats have been forced to respond to the GOP’s blitz of hearings, having scheduled their own upcoming meeting at the border “Finally, people are talking about it,” he said.

“So far, in all that I’ve been involved in, it’s coordination, not competition,” Armstrong added. “Can that change? Of course it could change. I mean, everybody gets parochial about what they’re doing.”

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