Congress is back in session, and members have their work cut out for them. 

“I agree that it is one of—if not the most critical time in our nation’s history,” says Ryan Walker, vice president for government relations at Heritage Action for America. (Heritage Action for America is the grassroots partner organization of The Heritage Foundation.)

“We are at the precipice of continuing the Left’s march toward socialism, a full and fundamental takeover of our public institutions, not just government, but education, business, university systems, you name it,” he says. 

With Republicans controlling the House, Walker says, the House Oversight and Reform Committee has a responsibility to hold the Biden administration accountable and to investigate the crisis at the southern border, COVID-19 spending, and much more. 

Walker joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss what we should expect from the 118th Congress, and to explain the significance of the battle to become House speaker of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Virginia Allen: The 118th Congress is now in session. And here with us to discuss what might be in store this year and ahead in Washington, D.C., is Vice President for Government Relations at Heritage Action for America Ryan Walker. Ryan, thanks for being here.

Ryan Walker: Thanks for having me.

Allen: We all watched a lot of football over the holidays, so using a football analogy, give us a little bit of play-by-play analysis here. What should Republicans, in the House specifically, now that Republicans control the House, what should their first play be in Congress?

Walker: Yeah, I think that’s a great question and something that we’ve been discussing openly for months now. We put out—The Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action put out seven strategic policy priorities that we’d like to see the Congress tackle head-on in the first 100 days coming into the new majority. Things like education, inflation, regulations, all of those issue sets that have been discussed on the campaign trail should be the center of their legislative activity going into this new Congress.

Additionally, though, we think that the Congress should utilize its oversight powers in both the Oversight Committee itself, but also the other committees within Congress that have jurisdiction over every issue that we’ve talked about on the campaign and others to investigate things like the border crisis and what [Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro] Mayorkas has done, or not done, more importantly, down at the southern border. Things like the energy crisis, how the president has used the strategic petroleum reserves and his actions in those regards. Things like that is what should be the priority for Congress coming in the first 100 days or so.

Allen: Now, given the fact that the Senate is, of course, controlled by Democrats, and of course, we have the Biden administration, how much legislation that is a top priority for conservatives could realistically actually get passed in this Congress?

Walker: Yeah, I think that’s a good question. I think there are a number of policy aspects that could easily be passed on appropriation bills or must-pass pieces of legislation, vehicles that are viewed as must-pass. So there could be some wins there negotiating with Democrats.

Like we saw in the [National Defense Authorization Act] this year, there were a number of victories that conservatives fought for—getting the vaccine mandate repealed for service members and other things—that we can get folded into those major pieces of legislation that could be small wins in the immediacy.

But thinking more medium term and long term, what we think the House should be doing, in particular, since obviously we have control, Republicans have control in the House, is starting to put forward policy solutions to things like the border. Having a litany of solutions, 10 to 15 items.

In fact, The Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action have signed a coalition letter identifying these specific things that we’d, talking about the border, that we’d like to see done.

Having robust packages that address all of those issues, go through the regular order process, and get consideration in the House is an immense start on an agenda for a new administration, hopefully a Republican administration. And we have what we think are good electoral maps for 2024 in the Senate. And so we believe that there’s a good possibility that Republicans could gain back unity control of government in 2024.

And that’s pivotal. The House has to put forward an agenda that Republicans can then run on and say, “This is what we’re going to legislate on. This is how we’re going to fix your issues and your problems that you discuss at your kitchen table every night over dinner with your family. This is our solution. This is our plan for making your lives easier and better.”

And so that’s what we truly believe they need to be doing. And I guess we’ll see here in the next couple months.

Allen: Certainly we’ll see. Well, it’s really what you’re saying, is, playing with the long game in mind, recognizing the fact that it may be hard for Republicans to get legislation passed right now, but they have a big job to do regarding oversight. We’re going to talk more about that in a moment, but it’s keeping that future of what is going to happen in the next election cycle, and in years to come, to set America up for success.

Walker: And if you pay attention to Congress at all, you see that policy initiatives and ideas aren’t introduced overnight and passed the next day. It takes a lot of education, it takes a lot of handwringing, it takes a lot of members getting comfortable with how they talk about an issue, how they communicate what our solutions are to their constituencies. So it takes time.

Democrats are very well aware of this. They will take a policy priority and they will run it through their conference and through chambers of Congress for many years, even unsuccessfully, all with the idea that the long game is what they’re after, and I think that we should have a focus on that.

Allen: Let’s loop back and talk about oversight. That’s a very D.C. word, oversight. Break down what exactly the House Oversight Committee is, what they do, and really what their responsibility is at this moment in history.

Walker: That’s a great question. The Oversight Committee was started and founded to bring accountability to the federal government. It is a committee solely tasked with looking at agencies and their actions and bringing forward agency representatives, secretaries, career professionals within those agencies to testify on the issues of the day and any problems or grievances that members of Congress, and by extension their constituencies, have with the government.

And so that committee has an immense ability to call those agency officials in, get their testimony under sworn record, get them on the record, and then go after them legislatively on issues that the Congress doesn’t agree with those agencies’ perspectives on, or they think that they’re just going about it in the wrong-headed way, and they can then legislate on it.

So the Oversight Committee being able to issue subpoenas and bring in officials from, again, all of the agencies, is an immensely powerful tool and an immensely needed tool at this time.

For two years-plus, there has been very little oversight into things like how COVID money was spent in states and districts, how the Afghanistan withdrawal was handled, how the Biden administration handled Ukraine and Russian energy and sanctions abroad, and things like that. COVID origins and [President Joe] Biden’s family. These are all issues that the Oversight Committee will look into and investigate.

Allen: And what would maybe be the top two or three investigations that you would like to see that committee prioritize right out the gate?

Walker: I think the border needs to be No. 1. The border is a raging fire. Right now it is, it’s almost a lawless place. Folks are coming across the border and simply being processed into the interior of the United States without much vetting, without much oversight, to not overuse the term, but there’s very little being done.

They’re doing catch-and-release programs. They’re taking Border Patrol agents off of their duty stations. They’re basically encouraging illegal migration through the southern border.

And so what the secretary has not done, and the rules and regulations he has ignored or changed or disregarded, need to be front and center for this Congress coming out of the gate. I think until we solve that problem, it’s kind of hard to talk about anything else, especially in that immigration world.

But also things like the pandemic money that was spent, Afghanistan withdrawal, things I’ve already mentioned, energy crisis, COVID origins, and the Biden family dealings, which I think that there’s a lot of noise about certainly, but there’s certainly legitimacy to a lot of those concerns.

And listen, the Trump family and administration went through this for how many years and they didn’t find anything, and they won’t even investigate or even talk about the potential misdealings or errors in judgment that the Biden family has made.

Allen: What are common results of investigations like these? Let’s take the border, for example. An investigation is launched, they spend time looking at all the information, and then come to conclusions that X, Y, and Z was done incorrectly, unlawfully. What happens with that information?

Walker: Well, there are a lot of things. One, I think, particular to the border, those oversight investigations and getting evidence on what Mayorkas has done, Secretary Mayorkas has done or not done at the border, will be pivotal in developing legislative action against him, whether that be impeachment or … the House using what’s called the Holman Rule to reduce his salary to nothing or some iteration of that oversight.

Those are critically important things and could come as a result of those investigations by the Oversight Committee and other committees that have oversight capacities within Congress.

So one, it’s about building that evidentiary base to be able to have those policy debates on the floor that are balls and strikes policy debates and not tied to a talking point, but is tied truly to policy.

I think that we’ve had a good example of this and how the foundation, The Heritage Foundation, can play such a pivotal role here.

The Oversight Project, which The Heritage Foundation started recently, led by Mike Howell and others, did some [Freedom of Information Act] requests of the Department of Homeland Security, particularly around the, and I’m sure you-all have heard the news stories, around the whipping incident at the border with a Border Patrol member on horseback.

An AP report, I believe it was an AP reporter, snapped a shot of him and put it online on one of his stories about what was going on at the border. Well, it came out and was lambasted by left-winged media as this Border Patrol agent whipping Haitian migrants at the border.

Well, we FOIA’ed the agency and got some of those responses, some of those email correspondence between the secretary and his subordinates. And what it showed was that the secretary, prior to him coming to Congress and testifying that he had no idea what was going on in that picture and that he believed that it was whipping, he knew for a fact that it wasn’t. He had email correspondence from his deputies saying, “We have no evidence that he was whipping these migrants or anything even remotely close to that. He was simply fulfilling his job duties.”

So leveraging The Heritage Foundation, the Oversight Project, and working with those members of the Oversight Committee, and on committees of jurisdiction across the House of Representatives that will be investigating other things—and there are a litany of them, like the IRS for one—helping them get that evidence, to then either litigate in the court system, have legislative activity to diminish the secretary’s ability like an impeachment proceeding, or legislative activity in terms of a border security package, so that those oversight hearings can better inform those policy solutions.

Allen: And of course, so much of what happens, specifically in the House, is somewhat directed by the speaker of the House and making those decisions. And as of the time that we’re having this conversation on Tuesday afternoon, we’re still waiting to find out who the speaker of the House is going to be. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California is running for speaker, and there are a number of Republicans that continue to vote against him. Why does Rep. McCarthy not have full support from the Republican Party?

Walker: It’s a great question. So, at the time of filming, it’s Tuesday afternoon. The House has voted on two ballots. I don’t have the full vote count of the second ballot, but it looks like McCarthy will come up short again on the second ballot.

On the first ballot, there were 19 Republicans who voted for someone other than Kevin McCarthy as speaker. Their contention, those 19 members, their contention is that Kevin McCarthy has not reformed the House, or agreed to reform the House, in a way that they feel would give conservatives more voice and more ability to legislate and influence the operations of the House. He has failed to do that, or commit to doing that, in a way that satisfies their concerns around having representation equally heard amongst all factions of the conference.

So they have a number of asks that they’ve put in front of Speaker candidate McCarthy, but we have not seen, since this weekend, really any movement on a number of those items.

I think it remains to be seen what ultimately comes of this. I can’t pretend to predict. It is a very internal conversation. A lot of it boils down to personal relationships at the end of the day, or a good number of them do, along with these legitimate, what I think are legitimate, concerns around institutional structure and representation of different political philosophies in the House. So they have some concerns, and so far they haven’t been met.

Allen: Let’s assume McCarthy is speaker of the House. How is he going to lead? What’s your assessment of how he’s going to do in that role?

Walker: Yeah, I think that we’re having some of those machinations play out now, that McCarthy—I think that conservatives want McCarthy to listen to them, have their voices heard, have the ability to have a seat at the table. That means being included in institutional conversations about what the conference will consider, having a bit of unity from the conference is needed.

And I think what we’re seeing now is whether members believe in these multiple iterations of votes, that if they support McCarthy, would he be the person that they could go to to have their voices heard? So far, those 19 seem to be saying, “No, he’s not that person.”

So I don’t know how he’ll lead. I think a lot of it depends on today and the dynamics of how these votes play out, what those thresholds are for things like motion to vacate the chair, which would give conservatives some sort of leverage over what he instructs the House to do and how he operates. So I don’t mean to not have an answer. I just don’t know that we know and I think that members are trying to figure it out.

Allen: Well, regardless of what happens in Congress, we of course, as Americans, all have a role and a responsibility in preserving our great nation and our freedom. And you-all at Heritage Action for America, you do so much great grassroots work all across the country. What are things that we as the American people can be doing, as we look to the next two years, and really beyond, what could be a really critical time for the future of our country?

Walker: I agree that it is one of, if not the most critical time in our nation’s history. We are at the precipice of continuing the Left’s march toward socialism, a full and fundamental takeover of our public institutions, not just government, but education, business, university systems, you name it. I mean, they’re sort of all over the place. So this is a pivotal time.

We at Heritage Action think of the next two years as an accountability-led two years. That is, we want to identify where we think the policy priorities—I mentioned those seven priorities that we’ve identified as needing substantial legislative activity on. We want to be the tracker, the arbiter of whether we have been successful in moving the ball forward to solve all of those ills.

And a lot of that begins with those HRs 1 through 10, those major pieces of legislation we talked about earlier, the border security package, things like that, that they need to get out of the gate, consider while they have this period, this two-year period, to do the policy agenda-setting that we all desire and need as a Republican Party to be able to go out to the American people and say, “OK, here’s our plan. Here are the solutions that we have to solve your kitchen table issues, to solve your taxation, your inflation, your election concerns, your border security concerns, your educational choice concerns, your concerns over Big Tech censorship, your concerns over life and family formation.”

All of those things are pivotal and are the foundation of our nation. And we have to make progress, especially in the House of Representatives, over the next two years.

So if I could give a parting word, it’s to pay attention to Heritage Action’s press statements, our Twitter feed, all of our social media, all of our email traffic that goes out to our grassroots.

If you want to become a supporter, let us know. We can get you plugged in and make sure that you’re an active and vocal voice in your community to drive these changes and to make sure that members are being held accountable for the decisions that they make or don’t make, and ultimately showing up at the ballot box to either approve of what they’ve done or disapprove.

And so that’s what we plan on doing, laying that out all for the American people over the next two years, and giving them the tools that they need to decide, in November of ’23, what the future holds.

Allen: And for anyone who wants to learn more about Heritage Action, you can visit Vice President of Government Relations at Heritage Action for America Ryan Walker. Ryan, thank you for your time today. Really appreciate this.

Walker: Thank you so much for having me.

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