Chaffetz’s planned run comes just a few hours after he called on McCarthy to apologize for his remarks this week that the Benghazi panel’s work has hurt 2016 Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the polls. Those remarks were seen as bolstering Democrats’ long-running argument that the committee has as much to do with politics as it does investigating the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attacks.
Whether this ends up meaning anything in the battle to replace Boehner remains to be seen. But it raises another question: What comes next in the battle over McCarthy’s comments?
A House Democratic aide tells me that some Democrats are considering a next step: Offering a “privileged resolution” on the McCarthy comments — a resolution that would basically ask for House recognition of the idea that McCarthy admitted that taxpayer funds are being used for political purposes. The details are technical, but in essence, if the privileged resolution is drafted correctly, it would probably force the House of Representatives to deal with it and hold a vote on it, no matter who introduces it.
So basically, House Republicans would be forced to vote on whether they stand behind the McCarthy remarks. They would probably vote to “table” the resolution, putting an end to action on it. But Democrats would then try to point to that vote as evidence that Republicans support his comments, i.e., as evidence that they support the notion that the Benghazi probe has morphed into a tool to drive up Clinton’s negatives.
The interesting thing to consider here is how that could impact a race for Speaker. Just when the jockeying is intensifying among Republicans over who they should support for Speaker, GOP members would be asked to go on record on McCarthy’s comments.
Another option being considered by Democrats, according to the House Democratic aide, is a request for action by the House Ethics Committee. At her presser yesterday, Dem leader Nancy Pelosi suggested that McCarthy’s comments may have revealed an “ethics violation of the rules of the House,” adding that McCarthy had “clearly, gleefully claimed” that the Benghazi probe “had a political purpose and had a political success.” To my knowledge, however, no Democrat has publicly said that he or she would actually appeal to the House Ethics Committee.
Congressional expert Norman Ornstein tells me that filing such a complaint would result in some action, though it might not amount to much. “It is the case that any member of Congress can file an ethics complaint and that the committee would be obliged to deal with it,” Ornstein said. “But ‘obliged to deal with it’ is a loose phrase. The ethics committee is pretty much toothless. They rarely do anything. Taking it up, and actually doing something with it, are different matters entirely.”
Ornstein also said this would not be his preferred course of action, because he sees the McCarthy comments as ethically ambiguous, in that they don’t necessarily suggest a clear cut violation of public trust. “My preference in most of these matters is to leave the ethics committee to taking bribes or things that are really a violation of the individual office,” he said. “This is more ambiguous.”
Indeed, one way to think about this is that McCarthy drew back the curtain on how everyone knows Congress really functions: a lot of activities reside in a kind of gray area where the use of Congressional power and taxpayer funds can plausibly be seen as overtly political, but still not illegitimate. This is what makes McCarthy’s comments so interesting: he revealed more than you are supposed to reveal about just how murky and, well, how gray this gray area really is. You could argue that he hinted at a level of politicization that crosses a hidden line into abuse. But it’s hard to say exactly where that line resides, and his comments, by themselves, are far from conclusive on that score at any rate. As Ornstein puts it, this was “a violation of political ethics.”
In that context, there is another aspect of McCarthy’s comments that deserves further examination. If you look back at the original interview, it’s clear that McCarthy intended to make an overt, explicit case directly to conservatives that the Benghazi probe’s success in driving down Clinton’s poll numbers should reassure them that he is a fighter who has a strategy. That doesn’t mean he revealed that the whole purpose of the Benghazi probe has been political. But it does lend some support to the notion that prolonging it has become, at least in part, about building a general, inchoate impression of wrongdoing on Clinton’s part. McCarthy seemed to want conservatives to see that the probe had succeeded in this regard. As Brian Beutler puts it, McCarthy’s moment “wasn’t a gaffe; it was a talking point.”
McCarthy apparently wanted that message, that talking point, to go out to conservatives in the context of the battle to succeed Boehner. Now his comments have indeed gotten caught up in that succession battle, but not in the way he intended.