WASHINGTON — Two.
That’s how many Republicans in the House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to create a select committee that will investigate the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, the worst assault on the heart of American democracy since the War of 1812. The remaining 200-odd House Republicans either voted against the committee or didn’t vote at all.
Six months after the insurrection, the vast majority of Republican lawmakers have decided to treat January 6th as yet another partisan wedge issue or to deny the reality of what happened despite all the evidence to the contrary. In the Senate, Republicans blocked an earlier bill to establish a bipartisan independent commission. Now, in the House, fearful as ever of incurring the wrath of Donald Trump and his followers, Republican leaders fought against a select committee and threatened their own colleagues who might sit on that committee.
But an investigation will happen. The select committee created on Wednesday will hold hearings and produce a final report in the same way that past committees did for Watergate, the Pearl Harbor attack, and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi will pick the committee’s 13 members, five of them in consultation with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. On Thursday, Pelosi made good on her suggestion that she might name a Republican member by naming Rep. Liz Cheney, a conservative and vocal Trump critic, to help run the investigation.
With all that in mind, it’s worth asking: How will this new investigation work? Will it stand any chance of digging up new information and discerning the truth of what happened on that dark day? Or will it devolve into a partisan circus like the Benghazi investigation of several years ago?
How We Got Here
A week after the January 6th attack, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — whom Trump infamously berated by phone as lawmakers fled to safety during the insurrection — spoke about the need for accountability and to understand what had just transpired on Capitol Hill. He said then-President Trump “bears responsibility” for the attack and should have “immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.” McCarthy added that Trump’s response to the insurrection “deserves congressional action, which is why I think a fact-finding commission and a censure resolution would be prudent.”
These words carried a certain amount of weight coming from McCarthy. He was one of Trump’s most ardent defenders — “my Kevin,” Trump called him — and a potential future speaker of the House. But as the ensuing weeks would show, the calls for a thorough investigation or independent commission like one McCarthy described were empty talk.
In May, the House passed legislation to establish a bipartisan, independent commission to investigate the insurrection. Like the 9/11 Commission, that body would have enlisted outside experts chosen by both political parties to understand the circumstances leading up to the attack on the Capitol, the security failures and governmental responses on the day itself, and how to prevent future episodes.
That bill passed with the support of 217 Democrats and 35 Republicans, a clear statement of its bipartisan appeal and the urgent need for accountability. But in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his allies filibustered the bill. Democrats searched for 10 Republican votes to defeat McConnell’s procedural road block; they found just six. There would be no independent 1/6 commission.
The New Select Committee
This week, Speaker Pelosi responded to the Senate Republican filibuster by introducing a resolution to create a select committee that would probe the events leading up to and on January 6th. That resolution — it’s technically not a bill — passed Wednesday with the support of just two Republican representatives, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Liz Cheney of Wyoming. Both Kinzinger and Cheney are outspoken critics of Donald Trump and his stranglehold on the Republican Party. And this time, the January 6th select committee resolution would not need Senate approval.
The new committee will consist of 13 House members. Speaker Pelosi chooses all 13 members but five of those she will select “after consultation” with McCarthy, the top House Republican. At the end of its investigation, the committee will submit a report about how “to prevent future acts of violence, domestic terrorism, and domestic violent extremism, and to improve the security of the U.S. Capitol Complex and other American democratic institutions.”
Republicans who voted for the earlier independent commission but against the select committee said they didn’t want to support a panel that would become too partisan. “I supported a bipartisan independent commission,” Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) told CNN. “This is the opposite.” Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) said it was “essential we have a thorough, credible January 6 investigation in order to produce an objective report to get at the truth and clear away fictions and lies.” He went on, “I fear the structure of this partisan select committee will not produce that critical outcome.”
In explaining his opposition to the new select committee, Rep. Meijer pointed to a cautionary tale of recent vintage: the select committee created to investigate the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya.
That committee spent two-and-a-half years and $7.8 million on a sprawling probe that lasted longer than past congressional investigations into the Pearl Harbor attack, Watergate, 9/11, and the Kennedy and King assassinations. Originally created to scrutinize the Benghazi attacks and the deaths of four Americans including U.S. diplomat Christopher Stevens, the endless Benghazi select committee veered into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and came to be viewed as a partisan exercise intended to damage Clinton’s chances of winning the White House in 2016.
McCarthy fueled those criticisms when he appeared on Fox News and linked Clinton’s polling with the select committee’s work. “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 and made that happen.”
The fear is that partisanship and tribal loyalties will doom the January 6th committee from start not unlike what happened with the Benghazi select committee. Whether the committee treats it work seriously or not depends almost entirely on its make-up. Should Minority Leader McCarthy put forward five Trump loyalists or election-fraud conspiracy theorists for the committee, it’s not hard to imagine circus-like public hearings and dueling reports that muddle the committee’s work as happened during the Benghazi inquiry.
According to Punchbowl News, McCarthy warned any of his members that if they accepted Pelosi’s invitation to join the committee, they would effectively lose their committee assignments. Pelosi has, in a sense, sought to preempt such an outcome by nominating Cheney, a neo-conservative and dyed-in-the-wool Republican. She joins senior Democrats including Reps. Adam Schiff, Zoe Lofgren, and Bennie Thompson, the three of whom chair committees with oversight related to the January 6th insurrection.