Prominent Democrats and a few top Republicans continue to demand that an independent commission investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections and the possible link to the Trump campaign.
News coverage has focused on speculation about whether there will be a commission inquisition. Since Republicans control Congress and the White House, it seems unlikely. The better question is whether an independent commission is appropriate and prudent.
The first thing to note is there are several types of special panels that are lumped together under the heading “independent commission.”
The classic form is a presidential commission, obviously appointed directly by the president (the Warren Commission on the JFK assassination, the Rogers Commission on the Challenger disaster are examples). Then there are “joint” commissions are created by congressional legislation and signed by the president (the 9/11 Commission led by Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, for example). Lastly, there are special congressional committees, such as the Senate Watergate Committee and the Iran-Contra committees.
History does not clearly recommend one form of commission over another as most effective. In less partisan times, the level of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elections would itself be grist for an independent inquiry, even without allegations that associates of one of the campaigns collaborated.
So, what are some of the pros and cons of an “independent commission”?
1. Unlike the investigation the FBI is currently conducting into Russian meddling, a commission looks at policy questions and not just prosecutorial questions. For example: Did the intelligence community know about Russian activities in a timely way? Did they respond properly to what they did know? Did policy makers act prudently? How did Russian operations affect the election? How vulnerable is the U.S. to further interference?
2. In theory, regular congressional committees could and should look at those same issues. The House and Senate intelligence committees are trying to do that now. However, the House committee is paralyzed by partisanship and the missteps of its chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. The Senate committee is working in a more bipartisan and less public manner, but it still operates beneath a shadow cast by the House committee’s problems and the public’s general mistrust of Congress.
3. None of the current inquiries has risen above the suspicion of partisanship and Republican control. A Trump appointee in the Justice Department, not a special prosecutor, oversees the FBI investigation. The congressional committees have their own partisan problems. The idea of Russia successfully tampering with past and future elections is so serious and fundamental that many want the most politically independent investigation possible — and that would be an independent commission.
4. Although there has not been a lot of polling on the topic, one recent poll shows that the public overwhelmingly favors an independent commission.
1. We have plenty of investigating going on already. The FBI is on the case. The congressional committees, however imperfect, are the proper panels for oversight and policy. There is not yet the kind of clear evidence of a cover-up that would necessitate an independent commission. Let the system work; if that fails, then start talking about an independent commission.
2. Past commissions and special congressional committees have made criminal prosecution more difficult and sometimes impossible when they grant immunity to witnesses or sources. The risk of that happening is not worth it and not yet necessary. Also, commissions have a mixed record in terms of adding to oversight, policy formation and satisfying public sentiment. They are no guarantees of tidy, transparent outcomes.
3. In cases where intelligence, espionage and national security are at the core, every kind of public inquiry is going to be frustrating ultimately because they all have to keep secrets. Inquiries on intelligence matters will always protect “sources and methods.” That means a brand new, special commission will do no more to satisfy the public’s curiosity and right to know than the current set-up.
4. The Washington circus has enough problems right now without adding another act. There is no guarantee that any kind of commission would be seen as less partisan and more credible than the current investigations. This is a hyper-partisan period and everything political is tainted. There’s no reason to expand the circus.
There are strong arguments on both sides. Chances are they will be overshadowed by strong partisanship, and the debate over how best to investigate Russia’s operations targeting U.S. elections will remain a shouting match between the parties.