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Most Americans Think House Republicans Aren’t Investigating Real Problems

The GOP just took control of the House of the Representatives, and there’s a Democratic president in the White House. That means House Republicans will open investigations into President Biden and his administration; the question is just how aggressive and far-reaching the probes will be. But recent polling indicates that Americans don’t seem to have much of an appetite for a slew of public hearings — at least, not the ones that Republicans have planned. 

So far, House Republicans have launched probes into the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, the alleged “weaponization” of the executive branch against conservatives, the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border and accusations that Twitter has tried to silence right-wing voices. And that’s just the beginning. Some Republicans, like Rep. Andy Biggs, have called for the impeachment of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and others are pushing for investigations of potential conflicts of interest involving Biden family members, including the president’s son Hunter.

Americans aren’t opposed to many of these investigations: According to a Fox News/Beacon Research/Shaw & Company Research poll conducted in late January, more than two-thirds of registered voters said it’s at least somewhat important for Congress to investigate the origins of COVID-19, federal agencies’ potential bias against conservatives and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. But Republicans’ targets don’t really line up with the issues that registered voters are most concerned about, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted in November. When voters were asked about their “top priority” for congressional investigations, fentanyl trafficking into the U.S., operations at the U.S.-Mexico border and the infant formula shortage of summer 2022 topped the list. This suggests that the Republicans’ border-security investigation could have some legs — but other issues, like the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, the impeachment of Mayorkas and Hunter Biden’s finances, were ranked lower.1

Other polls, meanwhile, suggest that Americans are concerned that Republican investigations will focus too much on digging up dirt on political rivals. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in January found that 65 percent of Americans were concerned that the GOP will focus too much on investigating the Biden administration, while only 32 percent were worried that the GOP wouldn’t focus enough on Biden. And when a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll asked about the GOP’s investigation into so-called targeting of conservatives by federal agencies, Americans were much likelier to say that the investigation is an attempt to score political points (56 percent) than a legitimate investigation (36 percent). Similarly, a USA Today/Suffolk University poll conducted in December found that a majority (51 percent) of registered voters agreed with a statement that impending House GOP investigations will be “mostly a political effort to embarrass the Biden administration,” while 38 percent called the investigations “an appropriate way to hold the Biden administration accountable.”

If Republicans’ investigations are mostly to appease their own base, they’ll reach a friendlier audience — but even many GOP voters aren’t enthusiastic about the inquiries that some House Republicans are talking about pursuing. The Politico/Morning Consult poll found that more than half of Republican voters think investigating whether Biden should be impeached and Hunter Biden’s finances should be top priorities for Congress. But only about one-third (34 percent) said the same about impeaching Mayorkas.

To be clear: Republicans’ investigations are going to happen whether Americans want them or not. Congressional investigations of presidents during periods of divided government are something of an American tradition. Two political scientists, Douglas Kriner and Eric Schickler, looked at congressional-investigation data between 1969 and 2014, and found that the number of days the House spent investigating the executive branch spiked whenever the two were controlled by different parties. 

The public-opinion numbers are important, though, because Republicans might not get as much political mileage out of their investigations if Americans think they’re bogus. Kriner and Schickler found that, in the past, aggressive investigations were pretty effective for attacking a sitting president. According to their analysis, 20 days of investigations in a month caused a drop in the president’s approval of about 2.5 percentage points. But it’s also possible that congressional investigations don’t pack the punch they used to. After all, Trump’s first impeachment didn’t do much to change Americans’ perspectives on him. And if Americans are already skeptical about Republicans’ investigations, GOP House members will have an even higher bar for convincing the public to pay attention.

Importantly, the general lack of interest in investigations isn’t evidence that Americans are blasé about potential misconduct by politicians, including Biden. Strong majorities of Americans approved of the appointment of a special counsel in January to investigate classified documents found at Biden’s home and office, just as they also supported a similar investigation into Trump’s handling of classified documents.

Instead, this lack of interest may betray a broader, growing skepticism of politically infused congressional investigations. When Democrats took control of the House in 2019, Americans were similarly suspicious that their investigations for Trump would be politically tinged. A Suffolk University/USA Today poll conducted in December 2018 found that nearly half (49 percent) of registered voters thought Democrats would go too far in their investigations of Trump, while 36 percent thought that Democrats wouldn’t go far enough. And by the end of Democrats’ four-year stint in control of the House, one of their biggest investigations hadn’t made a huge impact on public opinion: According to a Public Religion Research Institute poll published this past October, 56 percent of Americans said that their views of Trump hadn’t changed because of the investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

So while some Republicans will no doubt cheer the House GOP’s investigative zeal, the inquiries will probably seem to most Americans like more political noise.

Footnotes

  1. Respondents were given 17 issues and asked to evaluate to what extent each should be a priority for the next Congress to investigate.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

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