Every House Democrat has joined a call for Congress to set up an independent and bipartisan commission to probe Russia’s interference in the US presidential election.
The problem is that not a single congressional Republican has supported their effort, basically ensuring it won't succeed.
In a letter released by Rep. Elijah Cummings, more than 170 House Democrats endorsed legislation that would create a commission similar to the one that investigated the September 11, 2001, attacks to look into Russian election meddling. (Oregon Democrat Kurt Schrader hasn’t sign the letter, but that’s because he hasn’t been sworn into office yet.)
“These Russian attacks on our electoral process were attacks on our Constitution, our people, and our nation,” says the letter, co-authored by Cummings and California Rep. Eric Swalwell. “This legislation attempts to rise above politics. This commission is intended to be truly bipartisan — to have an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.”
Republicans think that’s unnecessary. House Speaker Paul Ryan has rejected calls for the bipartisan commission, saying that Russian election-related interference doesn’t warrant the broader inquiry.
The odds are no better in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants any congressional investigation into Russia to be conducted through an existing committee, like the Senate Intelligence Committee or the Armed Services Committee, instead of the bipartisan commission Democrats want.
Why the structure of the investigation into Russian interference matters
There’s a reason Democrats and Republicans have so sharply divided over what kind of investigation process gets chosen: the committee structures here really could affect the results of the investigation.
Now, both types of investigation would give investigators the ability to issue subpoenas, force witnesses to testify in public, and release lengthy public reports that may finger Russia’s role in the election and embarrass Trump.
Crucially, however, those powers would be held exclusively by Republicans in the normal committee process McConnell wants. In that case, Democrats would have no ability to issue subpoenas of their own or decide on which witnesses to compel to testify.
By contrast, an independent bipartisan commission would allow Democratic lawmakers alone to call witnesses and issue subpoenas. Moreover, the normal committee process could vote on partisan lines to keep classified a report’s key findings; that wouldn’t happen under the bipartisan committee process.
“There are three big questions that need to be asked: One, who was responsible for the hacking (of the Democratic National Committee)? Two, was the party responsible doing so because they had a preferred candidate? And, three, was the party working with that preferred candidate’s campaign?” Swalwell said in an interview late last month.
In addition, a bipartisan independent commission — the kind Democrats want — would set aside time and manpower specifically for investigating Russia’s role in the election. Swalwell’s bill, for instance, calls for a full staff of 12 people who would make the investigation their priority. The path sought by McConnell wouldn’t free up new resources for the investigation, instead adding it to the standing committees’ existing workloads.
“This is an important enough committee to solely focus on this one issue,” Democratic Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan told me in an interview late last month. “If it’s just led by the Armed Services Committee, they have a lot of other things going on — the day to day where they’ll be dealing with Syria and Aleppo and Turkey. [The select committee] would move it out of that atmosphere.”
At one point, both Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham — two Republican Senators who are notably hawkish on Russia — were arguing that there should be some independent review. But they’ve since reversed course, joining the GOP caucus in saying that the standing committee process is good enough. And unless that changes, any congressional inquiry into Russia’s election-related interference will be much weaker than it could be — and controlled by Republicans.
The letter released by House Democrats is below:
I am honored to join my House and Senate colleagues to introduce our legislation to create an independent commission to examine Russian attacks on our electoral process. I want to be clear about why we are here today. It is not just about the past. It is about the future.
The CIA, FBI, and NSA have issued a declassified report warning that Russian entities acted under the orders of Vladimir Putin to execute, and I quote, “an influence campaign.” They did this, and I quote again, “to undermine public faith in the US democratic process.” Our intelligence agencies explain that Moscow’s attacks will not end with the attacks they launched in 2016. They warn that Moscow, and I quote, “will apply lessons learned from its campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts in the United States and worldwide.”
These Russian attacks on our electoral process were attacks on our Constitution, our people, and our nation. And our intelligence agencies are warning us that if we do not respond now, the Russians will attack us again.
We are all Members of the Congress of the United States of America. We have taken an oath to protect and defend our Constitution and our nation. That is what this legislation is about. It is not about Donald Trump, or Hillary Clinton, or Republicans, or Democrats. It is not even about 2016. It is about our future. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from our solemn duty. We cannot allow foreign attacks on our electoral process to become normal or inevitable. They are neither.
This legislation attempts to rise above politics. This commission is intended to be truly bipartisan. To have an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. To examine how Russia and any other foreign powers interfered in our elections, including hacking federal and state political parties and disseminating fake news stories intended to warp public opinion. Most importantly, this bipartisan and independent Commission will make recommendations to try to prevent any foreign power from interfering in our elections again in the future.
I sincerely hope that Democrats and Republicans, including the President-Elect—who for the first time ever will swear his own oath to protect and defend our Constitution—will join us in supporting this independent commission.