Politics & Policy

Sins of Commission

The perils of a politicized select committee.

Congressional Democrat leaders thrilled left-wing bloggers and other liberal activists last week by picking a fight with Republicans about how to investigate the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But the minority party’s tactics–premised more on pugilism than precedent–might not lay a glove on Republicans, but instead leave Democrats with a bloody nose and Congress a black eye.

Most think congressional investigations of high-visibility issues hold the potential for partisan posturing. They do. But Democrat leaders are doing their share of grandstanding before an investigation even begins, threatening congressional-reputation suicide in exchange for what they really want: an independent commission. The House last week created a “Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina” on a near-party-line vote (all Republicans, plus seven Democrats voted for the measure). The Senate took a different path when Senator Frist announced last Tuesday that the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, would also undertake an investigation, but prospects of bicameral hearings with the new House select committee now appear remote. Trying to avoid a partisan food fight, GOP leaders are working to coax minority-party participation–so far to no avail. House and Senate Democrat leaders seem dug in on boycotting any kind of select-committee meeting.

House Republicans structured the new panel along the same lines as other select committees that investigated issues such as Iran-Contra, the Kennedy assassination, and Pearl Harbor, including breakdowns that reflect the existing partisan ratios in Congress. Since 1946, the House used this select committee model 41 times to investigate a host of issues, usually while Democrats controlled the majority.

While attacking the select-committee idea, Democrats see no sins in commissions. Despite historical precedent for the proposed structure, the House minority is insisting on an investigative body more like the 9/11 panel or a committee with equal representation from both sides of the aisle. Keeping with their favorite tactic of non-cooperation, House Democrats are holding their breath until they get their way.

Blood pressures in the Senate are a little lower. Majority Leader Frist decided against creating a select committee, instead saying the Senate Homeland and Government Affairs Committee (which includes a full complement of nine Republicans and seven Democrats) will take the lead in that body. But Democratic leader Harry Reid has not indicated much interest in authorizing the government-affairs panel to join in any kind of bicameral investigation. The scrum continues this week.

Clause 11 of Rule I in the House of Representatives says “The Speaker shall appoint all select, joint and conference committees ordered by the House.” Denny Hastert announced the 11 Republicans on Wednesday but is still waiting to hear Nancy Pelosi’s recommendations. Technically he could appoint the nine Democrats to fill out the panel, but the speaker will likely indulge Pelosi a bit longer. House Select Committee chairman Tom Davis of Virginia has said Republicans will wait a few more days for Pelosi to provide names for the speaker to appoint. Davis did invite several Democrats from the Gulf states to participate at the select committee’s first hearing last week and two representatives, Gene Taylor of Mississipi and Charlie Melancon of Louisiana ,attended.

Further complicating the Democrats’ boycott strategy is the scheduled appearance of former FEMA director Michael Brown, slated to testify at what promises to be a much more high-profile hearing before the committee on Tuesday, September 27. The prospect of a hearing that promises to get a lot of media attention with the minority represented only by a couple of “unofficial” representatives could prove highly embarrassing to the Democrats.

What’s disheartening is a once-proud party with a centrist element now takes its cues from liberal bloggers and other fringe activists whose tactical compasses got stuck pointing toward political conflagration a few years ago after the Florida recount. For example, the Daily Kos on September 8 posted an open letter to Senate Democrats with the provocative headline: “Filibuster Everything”–until we get an independent commission.

House Democrats also relied heavily on polling data to bolster their arguments during last week’s floor debate. Sticking to the leadership’s talking points, one Democrat after another cited a recent ABC/Washington Post poll saying 76 percent of Americans want an independent commission to evaluate the government’s response.

But who wouldn’t, based on Democratic leaders scorched-earth preview?

The polls also say more about declining citizen trust in Congress as an institution, due in part to the constant barrage of attacks mounted by the Democratic leaders on virtually every issue. Based on the current level of legislative polarization, why would anyone think a “congressional investigation” would do anything but devolve into a food fight?

Democrats, however, run a deeper risk beyond trashing the popularity of Congress as an institution. Americans also see asymmetries in who is playing politics. A recent ABC/Washington Post poll found that by a 60 percent to 36 percent margin, citizens believe Democrats are using the issue for political advantage rather than to find out what went wrong. Also, the poll also finds 40 percent say they think Democrats “alone” are trying to use the investigation for political advantage while only 15 percent think Republicans “alone” are doing so (22 percent say both and 12 percent say neither).

Clearly, Americans see the risks of Congress politicizing the post-Katrina investigation through a select committee, perils manifested and highlighted in the recent behavior of some in Congress. And Democrat tactics give Americans every reason to trust their suspicions. Still, Americans are more interested in a Congress that addresses problems instead of assigning blame. Democrats seem confident that their recent publicity stunts insisting on an independent commission will erode Republicans’ standing among voters–but the reputations they stand to tarnish are their own.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of research and policy at Dutko Worldwide and a frequent NRO contributor.

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