There was a chance, however small, the that Select Committee on Benghazi might actually yield some interesting answers about the invasion of Libya, which was conducted without congressional approval and created some pretty disastrous outcomes in subsequent years. Any hope officially evaporated Thursday, if it hadn’t already.
For nearly 11 hours, committee Republicans harassed and cajoled former secretary of state Hillary Clinton about everything from her relationship with Sidney Blumenthal to her private e-mail server to the Clinton Foundation, but never really focusing in on anything of import. This was to be expected from a committee that has sent out 30 press releases about Clinton since March, and five about any other topic.
Obviously a transparent, taxpayer-funded opposition research project launched by Republicans against a likely foe in the upcoming presidential election, the select committee was a joke. And Republicans aren’t done making a mockery of congressional inquiries: Next up is a select committee to investigate Planned Parenthood.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Select committees and other broad congressional inquiries have historically been critical tools in getting answers and creating change when other avenues are impassable. Here’s a quick sketch of some past select committees and commissions that should be the actual model for how Congress uses its investigatory power.
Pecora Committee (1932–24): Officially called the Subcommittee on Senate Resolutions 84 and 234, this effort came to be known for its chief counsel, Ferdinand Pecora. After the great market crash of 1929, Americans had lost any faith in the financial system and weren’t buying back in. To restore some confidence, President Herbert Hoover asked Congress to investigate the stock market.
Pecora used the committee’s subpoena power to haul the country’s leading bankers in front of Congress, as millions of Americans who lost money in the crash followed the proceedings. A former district attorney, Pecora skillfully cross-examined the bankers and exposed their misconduct. (It was during these hearings that the term “bankster” was coined.) As the committee did its work, Congress passed serious financial reforms based in part on what Pecora was exposing, including the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. This is an idea that should have been reprised following the 2008 financial collapse.