Fearing defeat, Republicans scramble to manufacture a controversy

An antsy party has decided to use Senate committees to effectively make in-kind contributions to Trump's re-election campaign.
Image: Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks at a press conference on the impeachment inquiry on Capitol Hill on Oct. 24, 2019.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks at a press conference on the impeachment inquiry on Capitol Hill on Oct. 24, 2019.Melina Mara / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

With the nation struggling to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and a severe economic downturn, there's an enormous amount of work Senate Republicans could be doing. The Senate Homeland Security and Judiciary Committees, in particular, could be tackling meaningful issues.

But it's an election year; the party is terrified of steep losses; and GOP leaders have decided to follow the orders Donald Trump is barking, without regard for propriety or merit. Politico reported this week:

Mitch McConnell can't afford any tension with President Donald Trump. So he's doing everything he can to keep his fragile majority in sync with Trump and his explosive election-year playbook. Just three days after Trump berated McConnell on Twitter to "get tough" with Democrats and probe the 2016 Russia investigation that ensnared Trump's campaign, the Senate majority leader took to the floor to echo the president's misgivings in a way he declined to do last week.

The same article quoted Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) saying, in reference to his party, "I just think that everybody realizes that our fortunes sort of rise or fall together. One thing we have to do is to make sure that we are united on our agenda and make sure that there's not separation between the White House and Republicans in Congress."

And what does that mean in practical terms? Just this week, the Senate Homeland Security Committee, led by White House ally Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), put aside work related to the pandemic and approved a subpoena related to ... Joe Biden's son. This is the same GOP-led panel that's ignored every Trump-era scandal that's erupted since 2017.

For that matter, Johnson's Senate Homeland Security Committee showed no interest in Hunter Biden, right up until the former vice president became the front runner for the Democratic nomination, at which point the panel's GOP members discovered their fascination with a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma.

Also this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by White House ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), moved forward with plans to investigate the investigation into the Russia scandal. The South Carolinian, who's up for re-election in the fall, vowed to complete some kind of report by October -- reinforcing the not-so-subtle fact that Graham and his party are operating with Election Day in mind.

All of this, of course, is being done with the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) who declared on the chamber floor this week, "Senate Republicans are taking steps to issue new subpoenas to a wide variety of Obama administration officials.... The American people deserve answers about how such abuses could happen."

What abuses? Give GOP senators a little time; they're bound to think of something.

To be sure, it's not at all uncommon in the American tradition to see lawmakers scramble to score points ahead of an election. What's striking about current conditions, however, is that the Senate's Republican majority isn't trying to advance popular legislation to impress voters; it's trying to chase conspiracy theories and manufacture controversies -- even during public-health and economic crises.

There's little to suggest the electorate will be impressed or has any appetite for such brazenly partisan antics, but GOP senators are doing it anyway -- in part because Trump told them to, in part because they hope to spark some election-year enthusiasm inside the Republican base, and in part because this post-policy party finds these pointless investigations easier than doing real work. (Have I mentioned that my book on this comes out in 26 days?)

For all intents and purposes, an antsy party has decided to use Senate committees to effectively make in-kind contributions to Trump's re-election campaign.