How Republicans Will Make Life Hell for Barack Obama

The GOP is now preparing to take control of the Senate for the first time in eight years--a political power shift that gives the party free rein to torment President Barack Obama for the next two years.

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Nov 5 2014, 2:41pm

Photo by Pete Souza/White House Flickr

​Call it the subpoena surge of 2015. ​Republicans are now preparing to take control of the Senate for the first time eight years--a political power shift that gives the GOP free rein to torment President Barack Obama and unleash the full weight of Congressional oversight to investigate, subpoena, and generally make trouble for Democrats in the next two years.

Privately, Obama advisers have been complaining in recent weeks about how much more time they will presumably have to spend dealing with Republican-led Congressional investigations once GOP leaders take over as committee chairs in the Senate. After four years of beating back investigations from the House, the new subpoena blizzard would come from the upper chamber, whose 100 members are often (though not always) more polished, camera ready, and far more potent adversaries than the lower chamber's motley assortment of Tea Party street fighters.

"When you have the opposition party to the White House calling the shots in the Senate, I think there would be more oversight and more critical oversight, albeit with the greater measure of decorum that is typical of the Senate," said Adam Zagorin, a senior fellow at the Project on Government Oversight.

A senior Senate GOP investigator agreed: "We're salivating at the opportunity," one senior GOP Senate investigator told me, "and not because anyone has a hit list or anything but because there's just been an absolute gulf of oversight from the Senate for nearly a decade."

"People [want] to give the Federal Administration an appropriate level of scrutiny," the investigator added.

Republicans have said little publicly about what they plan to do with Senate subpoena power. But it's easy to see how things could get ugly fast once GOP committee chairs have gavels in their hands. Expect investigations into the president's use of executive privilege to push through his agenda on issues like climate change and immigration, as well as probes into the Obama administration's handling of various foreign-policy conflicts, from the deadly attacks on Benghazi in 2012 to the mission to recover Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Not to mention what will likely be an endless string of hearings on the botched rollout of ObamaCare.

"The Obama Administration is going to come back claiming executive privilege against whatever they don't want to cooperate on," said a Congressional oversight expert who consults with both parties. "Congress will then try to hold the Administration in contempt, and court battles will ensue. This will have to go to the Supreme Court at some point."

None of this is new. The shit tends to really hit the fan in the last two years of any president's second term. Think Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky, the US attorney firing scandal under George W. Bush. There's no reason that Obama's presidency, which has taken place amid one of the most rancorously partisan atmospheres in recent memory, will be any different.

Already, a team of likely Obama adversaries is shaping up, preparing to take over control of key Senate committees when the new Congress begins in January. Key players include Senator John McCain, a leading critic of the Obama administration's foreign policy who is expected to take over the Armed Services Committee, and Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, the likely chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who could take the lead on investigating the IRS under the Obama administration, among other things. There's also Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, who is expected to take over the Senate Judiciary Committee, and who, along with Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, the likely head of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is also likely to cause trouble for the administration by digging into agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.

One of the more interesting places to watch if the GOP wins a majority will be the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, or PSI, a panel that is known for having a talented staff with the authority to take depositions without a Senator being present, which means it can cover a lot of ground. Democratic Senator Carl Levin has chaired the subcommittee for ten of the last 14 years, and has been described as a one-man band leading government oversight of major fuckups, like the 2008 financial meltdown. But Levin is retiring, and Ohio Republican Rob Portman is likely to take his place, according to a Senate investigator with knowledge of the committee's workings. The position could make Portman one of Obama's most powerful adversaries, giving him the power to quietly dig deep into the administration's files until he finds a scandal.

Of course, the target of these investigations won't really be Obama. After Tuesday's routing, the GOP will happily declare his presidency to be effectively over, and will treat his administration as irrelevant for the rest of his time in office. Instead, Republicans in the Senate will launch their investigations and serve their subpoenas with one eye on the next presidential race, with the goal of taking down Hillary Clinton, tarnishing her accomplishments, and branding her as damaged goods going into 2016.

Follow Timothy on ​Twitter.

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