‘It’s been eight months and no one’s been subpoenaed!” says Representative Frank Wolf of Virginia, who is leading a crusade for Speaker John Boehner to appoint a select committee on the terrorist attack in Benghazi. Wolf’s effort now has 147 Republican cosponsors, or over 60 percent of the conference, and it was buoyed recently by a Wall Street Journal editorial endorsing it.
But it does not have the support of Speaker John Boehner, his leadership team, or House Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa — although majority leader Eric Cantor is open to the idea. “We’re waiting to see what comes from the excellent oversight work done by our committees, and will continue to review with our chairmen the next steps,” a Cantor aide says.
The case for a single, ad hoc committee to investigate the matter, as laid out by Wolf, is that it could join into a single effort the parallel and potentially duplicative investigations by various committees sharing jurisdiction. So far, the House Intelligence, Oversight, and Armed Services committees have done investigative work, as have GOP senators, using the leverage of the then-pending confirmation of CIA director John Brennan.
“I think [a select committee would] bring together expertise,” Wolf says, adding:
You know, the Armed Service Committee’s important because the DOD’s been involved. The Judiciary Committee’s important because the FBI’s involved. The FBI’s been a lead agency here, so what’s going on? Why have they not interviewed people? We need Foreign Affairs, we have a consulate here. We have the State Department. We need people from the Intel Committee because you have intelligence, you have the CIA, you have the NDI [National Democratic Institute]. But you need to bring all the best minds together. You also need a unified effort because they can tell one committee one thing and another committee another thing. You know, a team doesn’t have five quarterbacks on the field calling the plays, they have one calling the play.
Boehner, long a voice of caution on oversight matters, has worked behind the scenes to facilitate informal coordination. The result was an April 23 interim report from five GOP committee chairmen, who have sometimes tussled over turf — particularly when Issa held a hearing on the subject in October, during the height of the presidential campaign.
Wolf says he has been in contact with whistleblowers who want to come forward but “don’t know where to go.” On the other hand, whistleblowers currently working with the Oversight Committee may not seamlessly transition to working with a newly formed committee. Wolf also notes that select committees have been convened often and sometimes for far less weighty topics. “We’ve had a select committee on the House beauty parlor,” he says.
GOP aides, pointing out that a select committee would not have any additional authority beyond the broad subpoena power already enjoyed by the Republican-controlled House, worry that it could limit the number of lawmakers involved. Ad hoc House committees in the past, however, have featured as many as 40 lawmakers.
One thorny question is who would lead a select committee. Wolf says either Issa or Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, could do the job.
The success of last week’s hearing with explosive testimony from diplomat-turned-whistleblower Greg Hicks has unified Republicans and quieted maneuvering over turf. But some interesting questions about how the issue has been handled are pertinent to the question of who takes the lead going forward.
For example, the Obama administration briefed Rogers’s intelligence committee and Boehner’s staff in March on internal administration e-mails that showed how senior State Department and White House officials scrubbed the infamous CIA talking points. A section of the April 23 joint report prepared by the Intelligence Committee describes those e-mails in a fairly broad way, and quotes from one of them. But clearly that information was not used for its maximum political impact. While that section of the report got little attention when it was released, the e-mails eventually became a bombshell news story when someone leaked the details to The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes and ABC’s Jon Karl weeks later.
More broadly, Boehner and his leadership team are looking to continue to aggressively press for more oversight. Following the disappointing election results in November, oversight in general was something that came up as an area the GOP could improve on, with Benghazi a case in point.
In investigations of past scandals, including Fast and Furious, the botched gunrunning operation by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Boehner has been a voice of caution. But he hasn’t ultimately stood in the way of bold steps — such as holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. Boehner’s concern is that investigations can end up making the GOP look overzealous and partisan if done in the wrong way. But since the Hicks hearing last week, he and his aides have aggressively pushed Benghazi in the press, showing a willingness to play hardball on oversight.
With the ongoing investigation of the Benghazi attacks added to several other stories in the news — the IRS’s admission that it targeted conservative political groups, the Justice Department’s subpoenas of Associated Press phone records, and the looming implementation of Obamacare — there is plenty of fodder for House Republicans eager to assert Congress’s oversight role.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review.