Congress Blog

We need an independent 1/6 commission that the whole country can have confidence in

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Congress's efforts to enact an independent commission to study the events surrounding the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol seem doomed before they even begin. Partisan rancor, particularly feuds over subpoena power and the number of members appointed by each political party, is undermining what should be a thoughtful exercise in fact-finding for the country. Can't our political leaders stand back and try a different approach for establishing and setting up the objectives for this critically important new commission? The federal government has decades of experience, dating back to the Great Depression, with both successful and unsuccessful commissions established to investigate and study some of our most significant national failures. We know what works and what doesn't.

Two of the most successful commissions, including the 9/11 Commission and the Robb-Silberman Commission, which explored intelligence failures around Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, had several key features in common. They were designed with either two equal co-chairs from both parties (former Democratic U.S. Sen. Chuck Robb and Federal Judge Lawrence Silberman), or a chair and vice-chair who functioned as co-equals (former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean and former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton). Second, their members represented a variety of relevant and critical backgrounds, and nearly all, with the lone exception of sitting Sen. John McCain, were officially retired from public office. Third, while a significant number of their members had Washington experience, they also drew expertise from outside of Washington, bringing in leaders in academia and others with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective.

Perhaps the least successful was the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The Commission was frequently criticized for some of its assumptions and conclusions. Ultimately, both President Lyndon Johnson and some in the Kennedy family and some of the Commission members privately articulated skepticism about the basic findings. More recently, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, formed by Congress with six selected by the majority party (Democrats) and four selected by the minority party (Republicans) after the 2008 global financial crash, split entirely along partisan lines, with the six Democrats voting in favor of the final report and the four Republicans dissenting.

The lessons of these prior commissions matter, and not merely for a full investigation and accounting of the events surrounding the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. There is also talk of a much-needed COVID commission to examine our successes and failures in responding to the coronavirus pandemic and to fashion recommendations to be prepared for similar events in the future. And investigative reporting by Craig Whitlock and others into our nearly two-decade war inside Afghanistan may well necessitate an independent look at the roles of intelligence, policy makers, and the Pentagon in that conflict. We have a wealth of crises in front of us, which call out for dispassionate, thoughtful study.

So, what lessons do we need to learn? Most important, serving on a significant commission should be seen as an honor, akin to a nomination to the Supreme Court. Successful commissions have had at least one member (and often more) who has a legal background, looking at both sides of a case and frequently as a judge, capable of weighing and evaluating evidence. A split of members representing both parties, and a range of experiences within those parties helps, as does experience working across the aisle and frankly a commitment to driving collaboration and consensus as a "way of work" on any such commission. There also has to be a commitment to the seriousness of the task and the purpose. Nor should it begin with any preconceived notions.

One reason why the conclusions of the 1968 Kerner Commission on racial unrest and racial disparities in the U.S. have stood the test of time for more than 50 years is that the commission refused to accept conventional assessments and explanations. Instead, it began anew, following where the data and information led, rather than looking for data to support initial theories. Another key component that the Kerner Commission had was regional and occupational diversity. Different backgrounds and different outlooks are key. Kerner's members included the Atlanta police chief, the mayor of New York (John Lindsay, a Republican), a union president, a defense contractor, and the commissioner of commerce for the state of Kentucky, as well as an Oklahoma senator and a California congressman.

Going forward, if commissions are to matter in our national life, we have to adopt a standard for how we want them to work so that the whole country can ultimately have confidence in the commission's work and its ultimate recommendations. The recent comments by Gov. Kean that he would not appear on "Meet the Press" without his vice chair Rep. Hamilton is a testament to an important way for future commissions to go about their serious responsibilities for the country. They wanted to show that both parties were working together for the country. The public and our government, on all sides, have to have confidence in their findings and recommendations. Washington is awash in press releases, tweetstorms, soap boxes, and finger pointing. We don't need any more score-settling. We need a bipartisan commitment to renewed service to our country first and foremost. Establishing a truly independent commission to understand what happened to our Capitol on Jan. 6 and how to prevent a similar episode in the future would be an excellent place to start.

Clarine Nardi Riddle is an original co-founder of No Labels and served as Attorney General of Connecticut, as a Judge of the Superior Court in Connecticut, and as chief of staff to Sen. Joe Lieberman.

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