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Republicans should shut down the Benghazi committee for their own good

Rep. Trey Gowdy (L) (R-SC) speaks to members of the media prior to a closed-door deposition before the House Select Committee on Benghazi September 3, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (L) (R-SC) speaks to members of the media prior to a closed-door deposition before the House Select Committee on Benghazi September 3, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The House Select Committee on Benghazi has been a travesty of congressional oversight power for many months, a partisan exercise so naked that it had to be wrapped in the American flag.

For more than a year, Republicans insisted the committee was about finding out why four Americans died in a terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, and how to protect US personnel overseas in the future. It would honor the memory of those who died.

But then House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy explained on national television that Republicans have been using the committee to tear down Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. It was a boast — McCarthy wanted to earn credit with conservatives in advance of his presumed election as speaker of the House. In one moment, Republicans were hoisted by their own petard.

Now it is Clinton who can wrap herself in the politics of defending the honor of those who lost their lives. Now it is Clinton who will start with the moral high ground when she testifies before the committee October 22. And now it is Clinton who can use the committee to galvanize her partisans.

Republicans should disband the committee — but not for the reason that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats say. Democrats are right that the panel is a partisan political operation masquerading as a serious investigative body, and that it has abused its power. But there's a different strategic imperative for Republicans to shut down the committee: It has become a massive political liability for them.

The Benghazi investigation has dragged on for years

The Select Committee on Benghazi was created by the House in May 2014, after several House and Senate committees already had investigated the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Clinton memorably testified before the House and Senate foreign affairs committees in 2013. None of the committees found any wrongdoing by Clinton or other government officials — or blamed them for the acts of terrorists.

But House Republicans were intent on going after Clinton, and, with the bonus votes of a handful of Democrats facing tough reelection bids, they set up the committee with a mandate to investigate the US security posture in Libya before the attacks, the government's immediate response to them, and the administration's efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice. The committee has little to show for its work, other than helping fuel the Clinton email scandal by pushing the administration to produce Clinton's messages, which it turned out were on a private server at her home in Chappaqua, New York.

The committee has been operating for longer than the Senate Watergate Committee did, but it has held just three hearings in its 16 months of existence, according to panel Democrats. Still, by October 22, they say, the panel will have deposed or interviewed eight current Clinton campaign aides and spent much of its time in hearings asking about topics such as the Clinton Foundation and the political operations of Clinton's allies.

For the moment, the political damage from McCarthy's ill-advised comments is probably contained to the Benghazi committee itself and not the main fruit of its labor — the overblown Clinton email scandal. But if the panel's work continues, it threatens to infect the broader Republican effort to discredit Clinton.

Shutting down the panel is a no-brainer, and I'd be surprised if the Benghazi committee, now tarnished by McCarthy's ill-advised and ill-timed remarks, is still in place a month from now. Perhaps the Clinton appearance before the panel will be postponed indefinitely, or perhaps it will be the committee's last act. Either way, it doesn't make sense for the GOP to keep it operating.

It would be an act of compassion for House Speaker John Boehner to disband it before McCarthy becomes speaker and is faced with the unenviable choice of either enraging conservatives by shutting it down in response to his epic own goal or letting it live as a symbol of House Republicans' willingness to use the levers of power for partisan political gain. Boehner could bring up a resolution to end the committee's work and rely on Democrats who have called for the panel's demise — and a small number of victory-minded Republicans — to make it happen. I don't expect that's the path Boehner will pursue, but it's an option.

Republicans could pass the baton to Jason Chaffetz

I'm actually surprised that Democrats are so eager to see the committee broken up. As long as the investigation of Clinton is contained to the "Benghazi committee," McCarthy's words will hang over its findings. It's like he issued a blanket immunity for her, one that protects her from anything the panel produces, leaks, or insinuates. Democrats should probably keep quiet and count their blessings.

Here's why: Though the Benghazi committee is now poisoned by McCarthy's words, the email investigation still seems viable, if misguided. The smart thing for Republicans to do would be to close the Benghazi committee and move the remainder of its investigation under the jurisdiction of another panel — one that doesn't have the partisan touchstone "Benghazi" in its name.

The Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who is a congressional expert on Benghazi, could take over the investigation. At this point, it is solely focused on how the former secretary of state communicated with her staff and friends. Republicans might even get credit for honesty in saying they would end the select committee's mandate because they've learned all they possibly can about Benghazi, the US mission in Libya, and diplomatic security. It never really was about Benghazi — it was always about Clinton — but that wasn't always as boldly evident as it is today.

Democrats are calling for Republicans to terminate the Benghazi committee because they think it's good politics. They're right. It's good politics for Republicans.