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Grand Old Investigations

Why should we think 2023 will be any different from 1993, 1996, 2014, or 2016?

Joe Biden Sworn In As 46th President Of The United States At U.S. Capitol Inauguration Ceremony
(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The new Republican House will soon begin investigating the Biden administration and his family, namely his brother James and son Hunter. Congressional investigations are critical to the separation of powers and make for great political theater. Yet those enthused by the prospect of investigations, revelations, and resignations ought to temper their expectations: Republicans are underachievers when it comes to oversight.

The gold standard for congressional investigations remains the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, also known as the Watergate Committee. The committee and its investigative team meticulously collected evidence and interviewed witnesses to develop and craft the story that would explain the significance of a "third-rate burglary" to the American public.

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The subsequent televised hearings conducted during the summer of 1973 captivated the nation; an estimated three-quarters of American households viewed at least part of the hearings. In a sensational four-week period, White House aides testified to the president's guilt in obstructing justice and the existence of listening devices in the Oval Office. Nixon resigned a year later in August 1974.

For many Americans, the hearings were integral to the demonstrated success of a constitutional system that “worked.” For partisans, the hearings showed that congressional investigations could achieve what elections could not.

Since 1995, Republicans have been the majority party in both houses of Congress during a Democratic administration more often than not. Meanwhile, the party has become less competitive in presidential elections, winning the popular majority only once during the same period.

Accordingly, Republicans have been more susceptible—and have succumbed more often—to the temptation of trying their hand at their own Watergate-style ouster of the sitting president. An appetite for investigation, however, has not meant an aptitude for it.

Scandal-prone President Clinton provided a ready target for congressional investigation, but the Republicans repeatedly failed to force his departure. During Clinton's first term, news of allegedly illegal conduct concerning his participation in the Whitewater land deal during his time as governor of Arkansas prompted Republicans to launch investigations in both chambers. Despite multiple instances of questionable conduct and convictions of associates, the deal's esoteric mechanics and lack of concrete evidence left the president unscathed.

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Clinton went on to comfortably win reelection in 1996. Shortly after Clinton's second inauguration, news reports emerged of a federal investigation into the practices of several prominent Democratic fundraisers amid concerns that Chinese governmental entities may have funneled contributions to the reelection campaign. White House coffees and overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom underlined the president’s lack of propriety and violation of campaign finance law, and suspected manipulation by a foreign power also suggested real underlying corruption. 

But Democratic committee members refused to support immunity deals with key witnesses and downplayed fundraising improprieties as inconsequential, asserting that both parties routinely violated election finance regulations. The administration refused to provide requested information and instead released it directly to an apathetic media, denying the investigation any headlines. Lastly, more than 45 witnesses either fled the country or pleaded the Fifth. In the end, Clinton enjoyed high approval ratings while his vice-president and designated successor remained the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. Congressional Republicans failed again.

The last and most serious attempt to use a congressional investigation against him came with the revelations of Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. The specific transgression was perjury, but grandstanding Republicans relentlessly focused on the president's sexual peccadilloes, for which the public had already forgiven him when he first became a candidate in 1992. Republicans mistakenly tried to shame a shameless individual, and the president used their indignation against them.

Instead of sinking Clinton, Republicans were shamed for being prudes persecuting a president for lying about sex. Democrats and media allies then contrasted the president's high approval ratings with the highly unfavorable view of the Republican House Speaker, Newt Gingrich. Congressional Republicans made the scandal central to their 1998 midterm election strategy, only to be soundly repudiated by voters, who instead awarded House seats to the Democrats. 

Gingrich accepted responsibility and resigned; his would-be successor, Robert Livingstone, unexpectedly also stepped down after revelations of his own extramarital affairs surfaced. Clinton served out his second term in full and left office with historically high approval ratings.

Eight years later, Republicans initially struggled to do anything against President Barack Obama, whose historic candidacy benefited from Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress and a swooning media. The GOP, however, regained its majorities in 2010 and saw an opening in the Internal Revenue Service’s harassment of conservative grassroots organizations during the 2012 election. 

The investigation immediately hit a wall when the main antagonist in the IRS scandal, Lois Lerner, twice pleaded the Fifth. Republicans voted to find Lerner in contempt, but the Justice Department declined to pursue criminal contempt charges against her and closed its investigation. Conservatives then sought to impeach John Koskinen, the acting IRS commissioner, only to be defeated by a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans. Concurrent investigations concluded that the episode had resulted from mismanagement, not political intent, and that no administration principals had been involved. Lerner retired before the IRS could fire her and Koskinen remained at his post ten months after Obama left office.

Republicans then shifted their aim to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama's nominal successor and a GOP nemesis dating back to Whitewater. A 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, had resulted in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, and despite considerable intelligence linking the attack to Islamists marking the anniversary of 9/11, the administration blamed it on an inflammatory but obscure video critical of Islam. From 2014 to 2016, the Republican House conducted six investigations into the matter, none of which found that the administration—and specifically Secretary Clinton—had intentionally misled the public about the circumstances before or after the attack or had been derelict in responding to it. Secretary Clinton went on to win the Democratic nomination handily.

Each misfire highlights Democratic tactics that Republicans should have learned to expect by now: being criticizing as overzealous sore losers obsessed with "old news"; being characterized as prudish bullies solely interested in publishing "revenge porn"; being reminded the GOP never did anything about accusations made against the Trump family; and arguing the rules governing presidential family members' business activities are unclear.

These episodes also highlight in negative an investigation's key ingredients. First, successful investigations must be well organized. The Watergate committee designed and synthesized multiple themes into a compelling televised narrative centered on witness testimonies. Witnesses should be knowledgeable principals who defected from among the ranks of the investigated. Second, the committee majority must cultivate an ally in the minority party; Republican Senator Lowell Weicker served such a role during Watergate. 

But most importantly, a crime must have occurred. Why? Because the cover-up is always worse than the crime. Today Hunter and James Biden's pay-for-play schemes are their problems; attempts to cover them up would be the president's crime.

Lastly, investigations should prevent future corruption. After Watergate, Congress updated the election finance laws for the first time in decades. Republican investigations could have a similarly lasting impact if subsequent legislation were to strictly regulate political access to elected officials by family members in conjunction with third parties. Cross your fingers, but don't hold your breath.

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