One of the greatest failings of Congress is its inability to confront the institutional challenges affecting the country’s political system in general – and itself in particular.
Internal congressional procedures, despite periodic reform attempts, remain cumbersome and inefficient, subject to manipulation by the whims of each successive majority.
For the two decades since the 9/11 attacks, lawmakers have refused to deal with the danger that a terrorist attack could decimate the House of Representatives, leaving it unable to function for months.
More recently, partisan wrangling has prevented the authorization of the necessary investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection that threatened dozens of lawmakers as they sought to perform their constitutional duty of finalizing last November’s presidential election.
As with most congressional failings, the blame is bipartisan, though Republicans bear the main responsibility. Most have shown little interest in a probe, presumably because former President Donald Trump’s role in inciting the attack would inevitably be a major focus.
Their resistance is one of the key underlying issues in the internal dispute that prompted Rep. Liz Cheney’s ouster from the House GOP leadership. Cheney, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, favors confining any investigation to the events of Jan. 6, while other top Republicans want to broaden it to include the violence surrounding racial justice protests in many U.S. cities last summer.
“What happened on Jan. 6 is unprecedented in our history, and I think that it’s very important that the commission be able to focus on that,” Cheney told a recent GOP gathering in Florida.
But Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a strong proponent of a probe, also bears some blame for the fact that, four months after pro-Trump mobs invaded the Capitol, no investigation has been authorized.
The powerful speaker initially proposed a panel with a majority of Democratic appointees, reflecting her party’s control of the presidency, House and Senate. But the best hope for a credible investigation lies in making it as bipartisan as is possible in today’s heated environment.
That means an equal number of Democratic and Republican appointees, as was done on the high-level panels that probed the 9/11 attacks and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Pelosi has proposed giving both parties authority to subpoena witnesses and started negotiations seeking a bipartisan agreement.
The biggest hang-up remains the GOP’s insistence that any probe also include last summer’s protests in many American cities after the murder in Minneapolis of George Floyd.
“We’ve also had a number of violent disturbances around the country last year, and I think we ought to look at this in a broader scope and with a totally balanced 9/11 style commission,” Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell said.
But Cheney noted that, despite concern “about the violence that we saw, the BLM (Black Lives Matter), the antifa violence last summer. I think that’s a different set of issues, a different set of problems and a different set of solutions.”
House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy’s position is especially tricky since, besides representing the opposition of his House Republican colleagues, he is a potential witness who could provide essential information about Trump’s role in the insurrection to any investigating panel.
That’s because of the midafternoon Jan. 6 telephone conversation in which he reportedly urged Trump to take action to quell the uprising. According to a statement that surfaced during Trump’s impeachment trial by Washington state Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, McCarthy told her he advised the president “to publicly and forcefully call off the riot.”
He said Trump replied that antifa – a reference to left-wing protest groups – was responsible, not his supporters. When the GOP leader disputed that, he said, Trump replied, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
McCarthy also said “the president bears responsibility” for what happened Jan. 6.
In recent weeks, Pelosi has said that, unless Republicans agree to a bipartisan 9/11-style panel, she will create a committee like the House Select Committee Republicans formed in 2014 to investigate the 2012 murder of four Americans by terrorists in Benghazi, Libya. That panel had a majority of Republicans and denied the Democratic minority from blocking subpoenas authorized by the chairman to potential witnesses.
The GOP’s principal target was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then preparing to run for president. But the panel’s report, while criticizing the State Department for providing inadequate security in Libya, did not directly accuse her of wrongdoing.
McCarthy, then the No. 2 House Republican, told Fox’s Sean Hannity in 2015 it had achieved its goal of inflicting political damage.
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” he said. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought.”
Naming a select panel won’t end the political wrangling. Any probe will likely encounter substantial resistance and trigger legal fights when it tries to obtain testimony from Trump and his top aides about what happened that day.
That would be unfortunate. The first step toward preventing a repetition of what became the greatest modern threat to our democratic processes is to make clear what actually happened – and who was responsible.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.