This exclusive 'boot camp' for congressional staffers is trying to make America bipartisan again

Melina Mara | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA)

Two major political scandals will rock the nation's capital next week. No one knows what or who the scandals will involve.

But, in a hearing room in Washington, a bipartisan committee of congressional investigators will work to collect the facts, reassure the public, and hold those responsible for wrongdoing accountable, regardless of political affiliation.

Sound like a fantasy? That's because it is. But maybe it doesn't have to be.

The scandals will be invented by the organizers of the "oversight boot camp," an exclusive two-day workshop for Hill staffers designed to foster bipartisanship in congressional investigations. Powering the workshop is a simple mission, which its instructors preach like gospel: Bipartisan oversight is possible, effective and necessary.

At a time when Americans and their representatives in Congress are more polarized than they have been in decades, the notion can seem hopelessly idealistic. But the organizers behind the workshop are far from naive.

Instead, Elise Bean and Justin Rood are former congressional investigators from both sides of the aisle. Bean worked on the staff of Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin, and Rood worked for Oklahoma GOP Senator Tom Coburn. Bean recently published a book cataloging 15 years of bipartisan inquiry in the Senate. Before working for Coburn, Rood was an influential investigative reporter.

Bean and Rood launched the boot camp in 2015 after their bosses retired, inspired to pass on the institutional knowledge they worried Congress was losing. The boot camp is hosted by the Project on Government Oversight, where Rood works, the Levin Center, where Bean works, and the Lugar Center, a D.C. think tank named after Richard Lugar, a Republican former U.S. senator from Indiana.

Kurt Bardella, who served as a spokesperson for Rep. Darrell Issa while the California Republican ran the House Oversight Committee, said that he believed it was possible that Congress could pursue greater bipartisanship — but that it depended on the results of the November midterms.

"Is it possible? Of course," said Bardella, a lifelong Republican who left the party late last year after the Republican National Committee endorsed Roy Moore, who was accused of sexually abusing minors, during his race for the Alabama Senate.

Bardella said the success of bipartisan oversight will depend on whether Republicans "see that there is an appetite from the American people for checks and balances."

Focus on facts

During the two days that the staffers spend holed up in a congressional hearing room, they learn to fashion fact-based, credible investigations. They break up into bipartisan, bicameral groups, and work together to produce reports based on their findings.

"We created this program because there are few places that have as much authority to investigate, with as little training [as Congress]," Rood said.

The current Congress has been a low point in the history of oversight investigations. In particular, the House Intelligence Committee's investigation of Russian interference stands out as an example of precisely the kind of partisan gamesmanship that Rood and Bean detest.

In March, a Republican on the committee told CNN that "we have lost all credibility."

"We have gone completely off the rails, and now we're basically a political forum for people to leak information to drive the day's news," Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., said at the time.

That committee is led by Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who recused himself from the investigation amidst an ethics scandal. Nunes was later cleared of the ethics charges, and moved to push the investigation away from President Donald Trump's finances, raising concerns among Democrats and nonpartisan watchdogs.

Democrats have escalated their criticism of House Republicans since the party took control of the chamber in 2010. In July, Democrats on the House Oversight Commitee calculated that Republicans on the committee had blocked a total of 52 subpoenas since Trump was elected.

Rood said that nowadays, there are fewer members of either party who are interested in "rolling up their sleeves and digging for facts and understanding the truth of what's happening." The goal of the boot camp is to change that.

"While some members of Congress want a partisan food fight, many others want to solve problems and are willing to do the work needed to produce a bipartisan investigation," Bean said.

By all appearances, the message has resonated. Applications for the boot camp surged 20 percent over the previous record this year, boosted by a push from the organizers to reach a wider pool. In total, more than 100 Republican and Democratic congressional staffers applied this year. The organizers declined to break down the ratio of Republican and Democratic applicants.

Good government, good oversight

Only about 30 applicants will ultimately be chosen, with preference given to committee staffers who apply in bipartisan pairs. In an ideal boot camp, the seniority of participants will run the gamut, from entry-level legislative correspondents to senior committee attorneys.

"The boot camps offer a safe space where staffers from different parties and houses can work together and find out folks from the other side of the aisle are smart, thoughtful, and capable of cooperation," Bean said.

To be sure, it can seem like the promise of bipartisan oversight exists in an alternate political universe. Congress has faced declining approval ratings nearly every year for the past two decades, as drawn-out, partisan inquiries have tested Americans' patience.

The incentives are often stacked against bipartisanship. If Democrats take control of either chamber of Congress this fall, they will face strong pressure from their base to go after Trump and his top officials, and to use the specter of congressional inquiries in order to stall the president's legislative agenda. It's a tactic that both political parties have used, often successfully, for decades.

But this does not have to be the motivating factor behind congressional oversight, Bean said. In a book she published this week, "Financial Exposure: Carl Levin's Senate Investigations into Finance and Tax Abuse," Bean argues that Levin and his Republican counterparts on the Senate's investigations subcommittee were able to conduct bipartisan, fact-based investigations for a period of 15 years.

The Senate, which is historically less prone to partisan bickering than the House, has remained somewhat above the fray that has consumed the lower chamber.

For instance, the Senate's investigation into Russian interference, led by Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina and Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia, has proceeded along on largely bipartisan lines.

On Wednesday, the Senate's investigations subcommittee released a bipartisan report alleging that both the Trump and Obama administrations were negligent in providing care to young unaccompanied migrants, the result of more than a year of investigating.

But it will still take time to get investigative norms back to where they need to be, Bean said. And, she said, doing so is essential.

"If you believe in good government, then you ought to believe in good oversight," she said. "Because you can't have one without the other."

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to show that the House Intelligence Committee was in charge of the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

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