My main concern about a House select committee dedicated to investigating the January 6 coup d’etat attempt is that there’s no record of the House doing a good job with these types of investigations. The Senate is the preferred venue.
I’ll provide two examples to make my point. First, in 1975, Congress set up two select committees to investigate crimes and abuses by the intelligence community following revelations that came out of the Watergate investigation and its fallout. Today, we refer to these as the Church Committee and the Pike Committee. The Church Committee, named for its chairman Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, was the most successful congressional investigation in history. Hardly anyone even remembers the Pike Committee.
Rep. Otis Pike of New York wasn’t supposed to be the chair of the committee, but was brought in after a ton of drama surrounding the original chair, Rep. Lucien Nedzi of Michigan, led to the House first rejecting and then accepting his resignation. Nedzi was supported by the Republicans and not a few Democrats because he was perceived as friendly to the intelligence community, but for this reason he wasn’t trusted by his own caucus or committee members.
Pike had more credibility but not much more success. In the end, his report was never officially published and we only know about it because it was leaked and published in the Village Voice. If you’re interested, the CIA has an official history of the Pike Committee told, of course, from their biased point of view. By contrast, the Church Committee is virtually the Bible on the subject of intelligence community misbehavior in the 1950s-1970’s era, and it led directly to important reforms, including the the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978.
The failure of the Pike Committee came down to the Ford administration and the CIA’s ability to cast its findings and process as “totally biased and a disservice to our nation,” as outgoing CIA director William Colby put it at the time. This, in turn, was possible owing mainly to the inability of the committee to overcome partisan pickering. Without the cover bipartisanship provides, too many Democrats remained skittish about confronting the intelligence community and didn’t support releasing the investigation’s reports and recommendations.
The second example comes from the Iran-Contra era. In that case, the House and Senate select committees worked in tandem, even holding joint hearings. Their main contribution was a decision to offer use immunity to Oliver North which later led to his convictions being overturned on appeal. The most penetrating congressional investigation of the Iran-Contra affair was conducted later by Sen. John Kerry’s Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations. Kerry’s report is one of the finest examples of congressional oversight on record.
Independent commissions aren’t necessarily better. Both the Warren Commission and the 9/11 Commission were badly flawed. In the former case, the problem was so severe that Congress had to revisit their work on the JFK assassination in the 1970’s and again in the 1990’s. At least initially, however, the public accepted the findings of these independent commissions precisely because they were not perceived as nakedly partisan.
More recently, we saw a tremendous difference in how the Senate and House conducted their investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. The Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, took its work seriously and issued a critical report. The House investigation, led intermittently by Republican chairman Devin Nunes of California, acted more as a co-conspirator with the Trump administration and Vladimir Putin.
When it comes to investigative work, nothing Congress comes up with will ever be the equal of the Justice Department, but as Cameron Peters of Vox puts it, “a concern when it comes to a select committee versus an independent commission is the potential appearance of partisan intent, which could make the findings of a select committee easier to discredit.”
Yet, with the Senate Republicans successfully filibustering the effort to create a January 6 independent commission, it looks like we’ll have a House-led investigation or no congressional investigation at all. It’s not a good sign that the Senate couldn’t agree to a commission, and it suggests that the historic advantage of Senate versus House inquiries may no longer hold.
Still, as with the recent example of Sen. Burr contrasted with Rep. Nunes, there’s reason to believe that a Senate investigation might not be a giant shit-show while a House investigation will almost certainly consist of Republicans doing everything they can to discredit the committee’s work.
This would be true in any contested investigation, but it’s particularly true here because this isn’t about the intelligence community or the current administration, and some of the witnesses will (or should be) members of Congress, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. If ever a congressional investigation should be led by nonmembers, this is a prime example.
There is one advantage a House investigation will have though. They will have the ability to subpoena whoever they want without worrying about Republican appointees obstructing. The Biden Justice Department will also be far more cooperative than the Ford or Reagan administrations were during their congressional investigations. They’ll also have all the time they want rather than some artificial deadline that can be gamed by reluctant witnesses.
There’s a chance this set-up will do a good job of getting to the truth, but that doesn’t mean the findings will have the impact they should. With the country so split, an independent commission would definitely have far more credibility and its recommendations would have a better shot at getting adopted.