A generation ago, it took exactly 506 days between the passage of Senate Resolution 60 establishing the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities to investigate the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate headquarters, and the release of an exhaustive 1,250 report that would lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon a mere 43 days later. By comparison, it has been 532 days from the date on which the Benghazi Select Committee was formed; and from all outward appearances, we are no closer to a resolution of anything than when the committee first began.
The point? The GOP does not know how to conduct oversight – one of the three key responsibilities of the Congress (along with legislating and appropriating monies).
The work of the Watergate Committee forced Nixon to resign as a result of the cover-up of the Watergate break-in. Now, a generation later, with the GOP rather than the Democratic Party in firm control of the House, the on-again/off-again investigation of the Benghazi debacle that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including a sitting Ambassador, and which has revealed apparent violations of federal record keeping laws, continues to sputter. The contrast between the effectiveness of the two select committees could not be more evident.
When the Watergate Committee was convened after a unanimous vote in the U.S. Senate, members of the committee were chosen because of their esteem among colleagues from both parties, and because they understood their mission was not to embark on a political witch-hunt, but to find the truth and dispense justice for any discovered law breaking.
No such respect or appreciation has been afforded Benghazi Committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy’s mission. Despite his competence as a trained prosecutor, Gowdy has had to fight tooth and nail against attacks on his investigation coming from on all sides. Not only have Democrats, and initially even Republican leaders like House Speaker John Boehner, refused to accept the need for congressional oversight into the Executive Branch’s actions leading up to and following the Benghazi attack, but Gowdy has been forced into cleaning up the fallout from Republicans like Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who make foolish comments to the press politicizing the investigation, thus further undermining its credibility.
Unfortunately for Gowdy, it is not a fight he can win; not because there is not corruption to uncover, or because he is unfit to lead the investigation. The problem is that Republican leaders in Congress have yet to figure out how to investigate Executive Branch abuse, or even to comprehend why.
The Obama Administration, and Hillary as a part of that Administration, is certainly responsible for its corruption and ethical deficiencies. Congress too, however, must shoulder some of this responsibility given its systemic ineffectiveness at holding the Executive Branch accountable for this pattern of misconduct. But why should a Democratic Administration fear an opposition majority party in the House that is busy fine-tuning the art of shooting itself in the foot; and a Senate also in the hands of a GOP majority, whose members are frozen in place and afraid to assert their numerical majority for fear of upsetting Minority Leader Harry Reid?
It is easy to blame outgoing House Speaker John Boehner for the pervasiveness of this permissive attitude. However, the problem is far more systemic than it is the fault of any one person. Simply put, Republicans no better understand their oversight powers and responsibilities now than they did when I was in Congress during the Clinton Administration.
Fortunately, Boehner’s resignation opens the door for reform of this broken process. The next Speaker of the House needs to be a leader who recognizes the constitutional and procedural sources of congressional oversight powers. If Boehner had better understood all the tools in his arsenal, then perhaps rather than simply empower Gowdy to conduct an investigation via a Select Committee, with its limited jurisdiction, he would have empowered the permanent House Oversight Committee — which has the broadest jurisdiction of any committee of the Congress — to undertake investigations that included, but were not strictly limited to, the Benghazi attack. Unfortunately, this generation of Republican congressional leaders never have exhibited the moxie for substantive, hard-nosed oversight investigations.
“It goes without saying that partisanship is at the very heart of the original problem,” the late Sen. Jesse Helms stated during the debate over the formation of the Watergate Committee. “It is all the more important, therefore, that the investigation be conducted in an atmosphere that inspires confidence and betrays no suspicion that less than the truth, and the whole truth, has been found.” If we are to have any hope of returning to our status as a nation of laws rather than of men, the next Speaker of the House must realize the gravity of Helms’ words, and work to reassert Congress as an independent check on Executive power as intended by the Constitution. I have learned the hard way, however, not to hold my breath.