Suzanne Spaulding is a former general counsel for the Senate Intelligence Committee, minority staff director for the House Intelligence Commitee and executive director of two independent commissions. She was most recently an undersecretary in the Department of Homeland Security.
There are serious questions about the House Intelligence Committee’s ability to conduct a bipartisan, independent investigation of Russia’s interference in our election and any possible coordination with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Recent actions by Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) , including his briefing the president and the media about intelligence he received in a meeting with a source on White House grounds before briefing his own committee members, appeared designed to protect the administration rather than follow the facts. In response, some have called for Nunes’s recusal from the investigation or the creation of a select congressional committee or independent commission.
The best prospect for a timely, fair, bipartisan and independent investigation, however, lies with the Senate Intelligence Committee .
Neither a select committee nor Nunes’s recusal is as likely to produce a credible result. If Nunes recused himself, his replacement still would have to be approved by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). Similarly, members of any new select committee would be chosen by party leaders. It seems likely, in the current climate, that each side would feel compelled to appoint their most partisan stalwarts to maintain control over the committee and drive the desired outcome.
An independent commission could prove valuable eventually, but setting up such a body would take a long time. The 9/11 Commission — the model to which most people point — did not file its report until nearly three years after the attacks. With Russia still actively working to undermine democracies around the world, possibly even this country, we cannot wait so long to get answers to what happened and to how we can deter and prevent interference going forward.
But the Senate Intelligence Committee has already begun its investigation. Moreover, it was designed from its creation in 1976 to be more bipartisan. Most Senate committees adjust the number of majority and minority seats they include in proportion to the overall Senate and have a member of the majority preside if the committee chairman is not present. The Intelligence Committee, on the other hand, is required to have a majority of only one seat, and in the chairman’s absence the vice chairman, chosen from the minority party, presides. Importantly, the vice chairman can issue a subpoena without the chairman, so long as it is “authorized by the committee.’’ As few as one-third of committee members constitute a quorum, and decisions of the committee require only a majority of those present and voting. This helps achieve a greater balance of power that fosters bipartisanship.
By tradition, the Senate’s leadership tends to take care in appointing members to the Intelligence Committee, understanding that the committee can do its work only if it maintains the trust of the intelligence community and the public. The members of the committee also need the trust of their colleagues, who will not have ready access to the intelligence shared daily with the committee. At the moment, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s members tend to be less ideological than their respective caucuses, and the committee has a better record than many others of operating in a bipartisan fashion.
Despite the sharply partisan climate in Washington, Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) have so far lived up to the committee’s bipartisan roots. Early on, they came out with agreed-upon “terms of reference” for their investigation and have not resorted to dueling news conferences. Instead, they held another joint appearance Wednesday and reaffirmed their shared commitment to conducting an independent investigation that goes where the facts lead.
Still, their investigation remains under-resourced. The committee already had a full-time job on its hands with regular intelligence oversight, which must continue. The Senate should provide more resources to appropriately staff this investigation — because it is the best hope for a prompt, impartial examination of a controversy hanging over the country.