This essay was authored by Kevin R.C. Gutzman for Nomocracy in Politics.
Congressional Republicans’ decision to stake their all in the 2014 election cycle on the unpopularity of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—“Obamacare”—may or may not be a wise one. We shall see. What we already know certainly is that they have made that decision.
Confirmation of a strong suspicion to that effect came this week. Speaker of the House John Boehner’s office announced that the speaker would appoint a special committee to investigate the Benghazi affair. Directed neither at correcting a problem in the State Department nor at obtaining information needed by the House for legislative purposes, the appointment of this committee falls into a long-established pattern of congressional investigations aimed at putting a congressional house’s opponents in a bad light.
The first notable such initiative occurred in the House of Representatives in January 1793. Representative William Branch Giles of Virginia, destined for a significant career in the House, the Senate, Virginia’s governorship, and the 1829-30 Virginia Constitutional Convention, proposed a set of resolutions for the House’s adoption. Their putative target was corruption in the Department of the Treasury. Their actual goal was to bring down Alexander Hamilton.
What Giles demanded was that Hamilton provide an accounting of his use of the funds in the federal treasury. Giles implied that although Congress had specified the purposes for which the funds from various foreign loans must be used, Hamilton had instead used those funds for whichever purposes he wanted, all while omitting to service the debt to France as Congress had required. Among the beneficiaries, Giles implied, were the holders of public securities (that is, the well-off).
Surprisingly, Hamilton managed in a little over a month to produce three reports, coming to about 60,000 words, disposing of each of Giles’s five resolutions in detail. Hamilton showed, for example, that his skirting the language of the statute about which funds to apply to which loans, etc., had enabled him to reap a substantial benefit for the government. Historians generally hold that Hamilton acquitted himself heroically, laying to rest all of Giles’s insinuations—and getting in a few licks of his own—along the way.
Then, Giles, James Madison, and a handful of their allies introduced a new set of resolutions essentially calling on President Washington to remove Hamilton from his high office. In Thomas Jefferson’s original draft, they had called for that step expressly. These gained very little support in the House, and one account (Stanley Elkins & Eric McKitrick’s The Age of Federalism) guesses that Giles, et al., “probably knew the effort would fail but were nonetheless determined to cast as much suspicion on Hamilton as they could.”
House Democrats can have little doubt that the target of the speaker’s investigation is Hillary Clinton. How else to account for all the huffing and puffing about the Benghazi affair on Fox News, on Republican-leaning talk-radio shows, and in similar forums, all while far more constitutionally and geostrategically significant infractions by the Obama Administration have gone essentially unexamined?
I think particularly of a letter written by Speaker Boehner to President Obama warning him that for the president to go to war against Gaddafi without congressional authorization would be a significant constitutional violation pregnant with momentous consequences. Obama entered the war, helped al Qaeda-affiliated rebels depose a friendly government, left a desert, and called it “peace,” all without a by-your-leave to Congress. His doing so was indeed a grave constitutional violation. We await the momentous—any—consequences.
Why would the House Republican leadership decide to investigate the Benghazi matter and let the Libyan War pass essentially unremarked? There seems to be a kind of party line that somehow then-Secretary of State Clinton bears some responsibility for the deaths of the American ambassador to Libya and three other men at the consulate.
The charges, so far as I can discern that the bloviating rests on any particular grounds, seem to be two: 1) the late ambassador had asked that the State Department heighten security measures at the Benghazi consulate, and the State Department did not do so, which—in the tradition of “The buck stops here”—is Mrs. Clinton’s responsibility; and 2) while the firefight of September 11, 2012 was underway, American military assets might have been rushed to the scene, but none were, and this is somehow Mrs. Clinton’s responsibility too.
One does not have to be a Clinton admirer to see this as a very flimsy argument. I might go so far as to say that it’s an assertion masquerading as an argument. It is among the only negative things I have ever heard said of Hillary Clinton that were untrue.
To use the House’s power to investigate for the transparent purpose of impugning the likely Democratic presidential nominee is an abuse of the House’s powers. It also demonstrates how void of substance the Republican majority is: nothing about an unconstitutional war which the speaker rightly branded unconstitutional ahead of time; lots of noise about Benghazi, where even if Clinton was responsible for not giving the ambassador further security resources (which seems unlikely), there is no ground for thinking she did anything improper or that she omitted anything that might actually have made the difference.
Kevin R. C. Gutzman is the New York Times best-selling author of four books. These include his latest title, James Madison and the Making of America. Professor of History at Western Connecticut State University, Gutzman holds a bachelor’s degree, a master of public affairs degree, and a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin, as well as an MA and a PhD in American history from the University of Virginia.