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Church Committee demonstrated value of bipartisan oversight

Two days before the House Select Committee on Benghazi launched its eleven-hour-long hearing with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I had the privilege of hosting a conference discussing the work of the historic Church Committee, officially known as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities.  The contrast between the Church and Benghazi committee inquiries couldn’t be more stark, and there are important lessons to draw from reviewing the differences. 

The Church Committee was created in early 1975 in response to news stories about extra-legal activities by the CIA and FBI, including evidence that the CIA conducted illegal domestic surveillance and wiretapping of U.S. citizens.  Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) appointed six Democrats and five Republicans to the committee, providing a more equal division between the parties than existed in the Senate at that time.  Sen. Frank Church (D-Ida.) was appointed chairman, and Sen. John Tower (R-Texas) was appointed vice chairman.  The title of vice chairman was chosen, like the makeup of the committee, to emphasize its bipartisan responsibilities. 

{mosads}The Committee held 120 days of hearings, some of which were chaired by Tower.  It issued 14 reports, all of which were supported on a bipartisan basis.  And its recommendations significantly altered the way Congress conducted oversight of classified programs.  Church Committee findings led to the establishment of the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence, the FISA Court that reviews surveillance warrants, and a fixed ten-year term for the FBI director, to name a few. 

In assessing what made the oversight work of the Church Committee so successful, panelists repeatedly referred to its bipartisan spirit and procedures when addressing serious misconduct.  While differences arose among the Church Committee members as to what witnesses to call in private versus public hearings, what information to release, the order of the hearings, and some of the recommendations, many of those differences split along lines of personal opinion, not party lines.  Members voted and acted, the panelists said, based upon their beliefs as to what was in the best interest of the country and not the best interest of their party.  The Senate investigation stood in sharp contrast to a simultaneous House inquiry that broke down along partisan lines and ultimately had little-to-no policy impact.

America has always experienced fierce partisan disagreements, but it has also had members of Congress who knew how to transcend that divide.  The ability to do so goes to the heart of effective, meaningful oversight. 

Oversight is one of the most important Constitutional functions of the Congress, offering a critical tool to analyze complex problems, diagnose what went wrong, and recommend reforms.  When it breaks down, our government doesn’t work as well as it could or should. 

Good oversight requires a commitment to bipartisan effort, sufficient time for a thorough review to understand the evidence, and involvement by both sides of the aisle in the hard work of sifting through documents, interviewing witnesses, and processing the information in order to determine the facts.  When our elected leaders take the time and make the effort, despite differing views, to come to a consensus on the facts, their investigative results are more accurate, thoughtful, and credible and produce better policy outcomes.

Today too many Congressional committees assume that common ground can’t be found between the parties and don’t put in the work to make it happen.  But our history shows, over and over, that Americans can find common ground, if they work at it. 

Oversight conducted by a committee where both sides of the aisle participate and where members make a commitment to work together, build a consensus on the facts, and do what’s best for the country, is the type of effort that meets Congress’ Constitutional obligations. 

While many members of Congress already value and practice the art of bipartisanship and consensus building when conducting oversight investigations, too many others do not.  It would be beneficial for all members and staff to review the history of the Church Committee in this, its 40th anniversary year, and be open to its lessons of bipartisan, fact-based, in-depth oversight.  Our government programs and the country will be better for it.  

Levin served in the Senate from 1979 to 2015. He is chairman of the Levin Center at Wayne Law.

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