Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The House GOP leadership just announced that Rep. Trey Gowdy will head the newly announced special committee to probe what happened in Benghazi. Gowdy, as it happens, has already informed America that he knows that the administration is guilty of a serious cover-up, claiming he has “evidence” of a “systematic, intentional decision” to withhold untold numbers of Benghazi documents from Congress.

The question now is whether House Dems will boycott the proceedings. Over the weekend, Dem Rep. Adam Schiff suggested they should, on the grounds that this will be a “colossal waste of time” that doesn’t deserve to be treated with any “credibility,” given how much has already gone into investigating Benghazi. This provoked outrage from Republicans.

A House Dem leadership aide points out that there is precedent for such a boycott. Back in 2005, House Dem leaders declined to participate in GOP hearings into what went wrong with the Bush administration’s response to the Katrina disaster, arguing that Republicans had set up the committee in a way that ensured it would not conduct a serious probe into what happened.

The House Dem leadership aide notes that Dems are looking at their 2005 response as a possible model on how to respond to the new Benghazi committee, though no decisions have been made.

“There is deep concern in the Caucus that participation in this sham committee, like the 2005 Katrina committee, would serve to legitimize what has and by all signs will continue to be a political operation,” the Dem leadership aide tells me.

Of course, the new Benghazi committee would be investigating the President from the opposing party, unlike the Katrina committee in 2005. But the parallel here is that just as in 2005, Dems want to see how this committee will be constructed before deciding whether to participate. The outstanding questions are how the committee will be composed (the relative number of Republicans and Dems); whether just the committee chair gets subpoena power, or whether a majority of the committee will wield it; and the scope of the committee’s mission, i.e., how its goals are defined.

House Democratic leaders announced today that they are urging rank and file Dems to vote against the creation of the new committee. But that’s separate from the question of whether they will participate, if and when the committee is set up. On that front Dem leaders are currently taking the temperature inside the Dem caucus as they determine how to proceed.

In purely political terms, this isn’t necessarily an easy call for Dems, because there is some benefit in participating, even if the committee is constructed in a ridiculously partisan fashion. “Some of these hearings are going to be televised,” Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein tells me. “The question is, does it make more sense to be in there, participating in the process and pointing out Republican overkill again and again, or does it make more sense to further destroy the image of the committee by staying out of it?”

Of course, the question of how to construct the committee also presents Republicans with a dilemma. “The more the committee overreaches and tries to find a big scandal where there is none, the more Republicans run the risk of the American people seeing the Congress they run as utterly unconcerned about the things that matter to them,” Ornstein says.

Or, as NBC’s First Read crew put it this morning:

After multiple congressional hearings on the subject, an independent review, and a months-long debate over the administration’s “talking points,” the question becomes: How much more does the public — outside the GOP base — want to hear about Benghazi? Does a larger summer focus on Benghazi make the GOP seem out of touch in this election year?

Of course, if one of the goals of creating this committee is to keep the base engaged and enraged through election day, it might not matter all that much to GOP leaders how it plays for everyone else.

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UPDATE: Dem Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Dem on the House Oversight Committee who has tangled with committee chair Darrell Issa, sends over this statement:

Over the past year, House Republicans have conducted their Benghazi investigation in a completely partisan matter by denying access to hearing witnesses, leaking cherry-picked excerpts to create a false narrative, issuing unilateral subpoenas without Committee votes, releasing multiple partisan staff reports, excluding Democratic Members from fact-finding delegations to Libya in violation of the Speaker’s own rules, and launching unsubstantiated accusations that turn out to be completely false. So I do not have much faith that a new select committee will be any different.

This new select committee appears to be nothing more than a reaction to internal Republican bickering rather than a responsible effort to obtain the facts, especially since the new committee will not have any powers that Chairman Issa doesn’t already have — including the ability to issue unilateral subpoenas for any document or witness, which he just used to subpoena the Secretary of State.

This appears to be a suggestion that GOP leaders are appointing the new committee because they’ve lost confidence in Issa’s ongoing Benghazi probe.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.