Say you think something is a total circus; should you skip it altogether, or hop into one of the rings so you can yell about how ludicrous you think it all is?
That’s the essence of the tactical debate raging among Democrats on whether they should participate in the soon-to-be-formed Benghazi Select Committee. Democrats won’t be voting to form it; they think it’s unnecessary and replicates previous committee work, and that it’s politically motivated.
The crux of the argument against participating: It would give credibility to what Democrats perceive to be a partisan sideshow.
The committee as constructed has slots for seven Republicans and five Democrats. The arguments for Democrats to boycott are coming from strong corners. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel urged against participating in the panel Wednesday during a closed-door meeting, according to a House Democrat. And the third-ranking member of the House Democratic leadership, Rep. James Clyburn, told reporters he would be “dead set” against participating if the panel were uneven. “I’m not bringing a noose to my hanging,” he added. A majority of those speaking before the full Democratic Caucus on Wednesday made the case against participating, according to a leadership aide.
It wouldn’t be the first time Democrats have agreed to not play ball on a select committee. In 2005, party leaders decided against appointing any Democrats to a select committee investigating the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina.
A number of Democrats have decided that even agreeing to appear on the panel doesn’t guarantee that their voices will be heard, citing the mic-shutdown incident in the House Oversight Committee earlier this year.
“We’ve seen gross abuse of the privileges of the minority and the rights of witnesses, certainly in the committee I serve on — Oversight and Government Reform — so, absent rules, you’ve got chaos,” said Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly.
But there are Democrats who say it’s a mistake to sit this one out. The most vocal member of this contingent is Rep. Henry Waxman, a former chairman of the Oversight Committee, himself a Pelosi ally, who made the case to his colleagues Wednesday as to why Democrats shouldn’t sit out the Benghazi Committee.
“I don’t think we should vote for it. I don’t want to give it any credibility, but I think Democrats ought to be there to point out the witch hunt that’s all political, that Republicans are undertaking with this committee,” Waxman said.
But wouldn’t participating legitimize the endeavor? Waxman says no. “If anything, some Democrats ought to be there to continue to point that out. We need to be there to be sure that when Republicans abuse their power, point it out then and there that they’re abusing their power.”
The prospect of an all-Republican panel subpoenaing someone such as Hillary Clinton to testify, without a Democrat in the room, does give pause.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday night, reiterating a request for equal representation on the panel, including the issuance of subpoenas and how documents are obtained and possibly released, among other points. Rep. Joe Crowley, a member of Democratic leadership, said, “There are still discussions going on between both caucuses” on how the committee will function.
Many details are not spelled out to the liking of Democrats, who tried in a Wednesday House Rules Committee meeting to push an amendment that would even out the panel’s makeup so that there would be equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. The effort failed.
The committee will dissolve 30 days after it issues a report, and its life could run to the end of the 113th Congress. But leaders can bring it back for reauthorization in the next Congress, which would easily pass a Republican-controlled House.
The House Republican leadership has insisted that the panel is needed. A recently released email, obtained by the conservative group Judicial Watch, has House Republicans concerned that the administration has withheld information from Congress. The email was sent by White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes to then-United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, ahead of her scheduled appearances on several Sunday talk shows to discuss the attacks in Libya. The email suggests that the White House had a role in shaping how Rice discussed the attacks, which left four Americans dead.
Boehner has promised that the committee will operate in a highly dignified manner. “This is all about getting to the truth. It’s not going to be a sideshow. It’s not going to be a circus. This is a serious investigation,” Boehner said Wednesday. “I think it’s about bringing all these activities that have been going together into one place. And it’ll be paid for out of existing House accounts.”
It’s in Republicans’ best interests that Democrats participate. If Democrats don’t participate, it will make it harder for Republicans to deflect criticisms that the panel is a political ploy. And Republicans will have to exercise some discipline in how they manage the politics around the panel.
The National Republican Congressional Committee shot off an email Wednesday morning fundraising off the committee’s creation. White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said that “is a pretty good indication of the political motivation that’s at work here.”
Around the Capitol, Republicans have disavowed such a campaign strategy. “I cannot and will not raise money on Benghazi,” Rep. Trey Gowdy, the Republican tapped by Boehner to chair the committee, told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “I also advise my colleagues to follow suit.”
The House will vote Thursday on the creation of the committee, and Democrats are whipping their members to vote no. After that, they are expected to announce a decision on whether they’ll participate, according to a leadership aide. And Republicans will likely name the members from their conference who will serve on the committee by the end of the week.