It’s beginning to feel like the late ’90s all over again.
Then, congressional Republicans howled themselves hoarse about Clinton administration scandals. But the indicators kept pointing to a booming economy, and support for President Bill Clinton climbed steeply through 1998 as House Republicans marched toward impeaching him.
Now, after a long economic winter, green shoots are everywhere: The stock market is booming, housing prices are rebounding and mortgage providers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, long demonized by Republicans, are returning profits to the Treasury. Job growth has accelerated and consumer confidence has reached its highest level in almost six years. Health care cost increases are slowing, Medicare’s prospects are improving — in part because of President Barack Obama’s health care reforms — and gasoline prices are forecast to decline. Long-term fiscal problems remain, but the federal deficit is shrinking, putting off Washington’s debt-ceiling standoff until late fall.
Yet House Republicans have shelved a serious legislative agenda this year in favor of 24/7 investigations. On Tuesday morning alone, they held two hearings probing alleged wrongdoing in the Obama administration. At a House education committee hearing in the Rayburn building, several Republicans grilled Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius over her fundraising for a nonprofit that works to enroll people in new health-insurance programs. (Similar activities were undertaken by officials in the George W. Bush administration.)
Next door in the Longworth building, the Ways and Means Committee hosted tea party groups complaining that their rights had been violated by the administration. (Investigators have yet to find a link to the White House or to Obama’s political appointees.) Instead of working on tax reform, Ways and Means is one of three House committees holding hearings this week on the Internal Revenue Service abuses. This sounds like a lot — until you consider that five committees are reportedly investigating the administration’s handling of September’s attack on U.S. personnel in Benghazi, Libya.
A good indication of House Republicans’ mindset came last week, when Rep. John Boehner’s spokesman wrote on the House speaker’s official blog that a speech by Obama on student loans was an attempt “to change the subject from its growing list of scandals.” It’s telling that the GOP leadership would view a student loan event as a distraction from scandals but wouldn’t see the obsession with scandals as a distraction from pocketbook issues.
As The Washington Post’s Paul Kane reported Tuesday, House Republicans haven’t passed much ambitious legislation this year after they “disintegrated into squabbling factions, no longer able to agree on — much less execute — some of the most basic government functions.” One of the few things that unite them is the investigation of scandals. A few weeks ago, Heritage Action for America, an influential conservative group, suggested that House Republicans focus on investigations and avoid legislation that could divide them.
To be sure, there are real issues involved in the probes, particularly the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups and the Justice Department’s intimidation of journalists. And, with economic troubles remaining in much of the world, there’s no guarantee of a 1990s-style boom. But in terms of scandal, House Republicans so far have significantly less to work with than they did in 1998, when the president lied about sex acts with an intern.
Republicans, after fighting Obama’s economic policies for four years, may have no better option than to focus on scandal now that the economy is rebounding. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told reporters Tuesday morning that Republicans would simultaneously be “emphasizing working families” while investigating the administration “in a deliberative, thoughtful manner, allowing the facts to speak for themselves.”
Reporters asked whether this thoughtfulness was consistent with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, calling the White House press secretary a “paid liar” and describing Obama as Nixonian. Cantor declined to disavow Issa’s statements.
The problem for Republicans is that they appear to be following not the facts but rather their own theories.
As my colleague Greg Sargent noted, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., may have revealed too much about GOP motives when he said “the trouble here isn’t even the individual specific scandals” but “this pattern of deception administration-wide.”
Will Americans find compelling this hunt for a pattern among accusations that even the accusers regard as unimportant? Or will they be “distracted” by the passel of indicators showing accelerating economic growth and improved government finances?
For those who remember the 1990s, the answer is obvious.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org