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New members are prepared for battle on House Oversight Committee

The committee is stacked with eager, media-friendly Democrats hungry to rein in President Trump.
Image: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. (left) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. (right), on Capitol Hill on Jan. 16, 2019.Andrew Harnik / AP file

WASHINGTON — Oversight is its mandate but history shows that fiery conflict is its preferred method.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, set to hold its first hearing of the new Democratic-led Congress on Tuesday, is poised to ensure an active and explosive two years of hearings and investigations.

Democratic leaders have stocked the committee with new, eager and media-friendly members who are hungry to dig into accusations against President Donald Trump and his administration on multiple fronts.

And they are set to go against a Republican side of the committee filled with the president’s biggest and most vocal defenders.

“The Democrats have taken their A-list freshmen and put them on the Oversight Committee — there is a reason why,” Jason Chaffetz, a former Republican chairman of the committee who is now a Fox News commentator, told NBC News. “If you want to be a viper and aren’t afraid of mixing it up, oversight is a good place for you.”

The committee, which already has a list of dozens of investigations it wants to pursue and enjoys few jurisdictional restrictions, won’t play a role in any potential impeachment and rarely produces legislation. But its impact is revealed in its ability to mine facts, bring witnesses before the committee and drive the media narrative.

The hearing Tuesday will focus on the rising cost of prescription drug prices. While it won’t be directly about the president, it will serve as a warm-up for new members who have never been a part of a congressional committee. (The committee has already begun looking into security clearances of White House personnel, an example of how it will probe the president and his administration.)

The committee’s roster now consists of freshmen rabble-rousers like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who made waves on her first day of Congress by telling a progressive crowd that she wants to “impeach the mother***er,” in reference to Trump.

“At a time when the country is at such a crossroads when we’re the only checks and balances, I consider myself to do a little justice seeking and truth-telling so I think I’m in good company,” said Pressley, who tweeted a GIF of "I have the receipts," announcing her appointment to the committee.

“The Republican majority the last couple of years completely abdicated their responsibility for accountability and oversight and so we have a lot of work to do to make up for that lost time,” Ocasio-Cortez told NBC.

“I’m excited. I can hardly wait,” committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said of the new members. “We have had so many things coming at us from this administration where lies are deemed to be true and truth is deemed to be lies. Now we have to get to the truth.”

The freshman firebrands will be pitted against the most effective and loyal defenders of the president.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, is the top Republican of the committee. He is controversial within his own conference because of his hardline tactics and views and lost out to be ranking member of the Judiciary Committee.

After that, GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy of California saw Jordan as the perfect foil for Democrats and convinced Republicans to allow him to take the Oversight helm for the minority, according to a person familiar with McCarthy's thinking.

For his part, Jordan dismissed the expected contentiousness of the committee. “Our goal is to make sure our side is ready to pursue the truth,” Jordan said in a brief hallway interview. But the differences of their objectives could not be greater.

Jordan will have the help of fellow firebrands like Reps. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Justin Amash of Michigan, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Virginia Foxx of North Carolina and Paul Gosar of Arizona, all of whom have the president’s ear and his support.

“I think we have some very tough Republicans on this committee too and I think you’ve got a good match in a lot of us,” said Freshman Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif.

Massie, who has sat on the committee for the past six years, said that their goal, since they’ll be in the minority, “is to stem the bleeding.”

He was unusually blunt about the committee, however. Massie acknowledged that he’s on the committee because he’s from a safe district of constituents who appreciate the partisan approach.

He also noted that it should be called “the theater committee.”

“You walk in here into the back room you muster your righteous indignation and you step out on the stage and ask somebody, 'How could you? What were you thinking?'” Massie said, laughing. “You could make a grandma feel bad about making cookies for her grandkids if she’s sitting in front of you.”

But Democrats, who are aggressively pursuing a long list of investigations into family separations at the border, voting rights and the census, just to name a few, vow to be "effective and efficient" and uncover the truth.

“These dynamic members will be in the driver’s seat as the Democratic House delivers on our promise to restore the Congress’ constitutional responsibility to serve as an independent check and balance and to return accountability and transparency to government,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said to NBC News in a statement.

Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the committee became more explosive in the era of President Richard Nixon. But he said that during the Bill Clinton presidency, under then-chairman Dan Burton, the partisanship rose to a new level.

In recent years, the most notable investigations fell under Republican Trey Gowdy of South Carolina who oversaw the investigation into then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of the attacks at the American consulate in Benghazi. And Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz directed the Fast and Furious investigation into Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms program to purchase illegal guns.

Cummings said he told his members at a meeting last week that they have an important role at a perilous time.

“They did not come to the battle. The battle was brought to them,” he said. “[People] will ask the question 200 years from now, ‘What did you do? Did you stand by and do nothing?’”