In her Sunday video announcing her presidential candidacy, Hillary Clinton touched as many hot buttons as could be crammed into a two-minute spot – women, working families, single moms, gays, Hispanics, retirees, even dog owners made the cut. Not surprisingly, what failed to make the cut was the most serious scandal (among many) which will dog Hillary throughout the primary and general campaign season – the fact that she violated numerous federal laws and regulations regarding official e-mails during and after her tenure as Secretary of State, and has thumbed her nose at the Congress seeking answers.
It made perfect sense, of course, for the presumptive Democratic nominee to stay as far from this scandal as possible.
For one thing, Clinton undoubtedly appreciates the fact that congressional Republicans rarely exhibit any instinct or stomach for pressing an attack against a Democrat adversary, regardless of how strong the merits. Already, for example, the Republican leadership in the House has let slip by what probably was its strongest and most potent weapon with which to attack Hillary.
That golden opportunity was not the Select Committee on Benghazi, chaired by South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy. To be sure, the Benghazi Committee’s investigation is an important one, and may yet uncover important evidence that Hillary and other Obama Administration officials were derelict in their duties before, during and after the fatal 2012 attack on the American consulate in that Libyan city. But already the Select Committee is bogged down in negotiations with Clinton’s attorneys, who are gleefully parsing every word in a committee “request” to the former Secretary of State to kindly turn over her e-mail server to a “neutral” entity for review.
Based on my background as a United States Attorney, and especially as an impeachment manager in the trial of former President Bill Clinton, once you start down that path of playing “Mother May I” with an adversary as adept at delaying and obfuscating as are both Clintons, you have pretty well lost whatever advantage you might have had.
Moreover, while the Benghazi Select Committee is clothed with essentially the same powers as a standing committee of the House, including the power to subpoena witnesses and materials relevant to its jurisdiction, the fact is, its jurisdiction is limited. While the Resolution establishing the Select Committee does sweep broadly, at some point every witness it might call and every document it might subpoena, will be subject to wrangling over whether or not it falls within the scope of the “Benghazi” incident. This inherent limitation will prove a source of continuing irritation, controversy and delay for the work of the Select Committee, no matter how aggressive a Chairman Gowdy turns out to be; and he is a good one.
Which brings us to the golden opportunity the GOP had to obtain answers and hold Hillary accountable to the law and to the American People, but for some reason rejected — the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, chaired by Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz.
The House Oversight Committee has the broadest jurisdiction of any committee of the Congress – including the power to inquire into the operation of every department, office and agency of the federal government; to ensure they and those persons administering them (or who did administer them) are doing so consistent with the letter and the intent of legislation passed by the Congress. It is a permanent committee, and its chairman has the power – not enjoyed by any other committee chairman – to issue subpoenas without vote of the committee.
Of course, Chaffetz, like every committee chairman, ultimately is limited in what he can do as a committee chairman by the leadership of the majority party to which he belongs. And therein lies the rub.
Chaffetz announced earlier this year that his committee would investigate the Hillary Clinton e-mail scandal insofar as it clearly deals with possible violations of federal laws and regulations governing the integrity of communications and records keeping by government officials and departments. The jurisdiction of the committee clearly covers both the subject matter and the individuals involved in all aspects of the Clinton e-mail scandal; and there would be no argument over whether any particular witness or document subpoenaed did or did not relate to the Benghazi incident.
The Oversight Committee could even, should it desire, take a witness – even a former cabinet official – into custody for refusing to appear or produce subpoenaed materials (broadly construed by courts today to include computers). This reflects the power vested in a congressional committee — as a part of a branch of our government co-equal with the executive branch – and upheld by the United States Supreme Court in a 1927 decision that has not been overturned since. That would be an extreme measure, but it reflects the trump cards held by the GOP as the majority party in both houses of Congress; power that means something only if understood and wielded.
In failing to lay the groundwork for definitive action through an investigation conducted by the Government Oversight Committee, the GOP has significantly, if not fatally limited its ability to hold Hillary Clinton accountable for violating the laws and lawful regulations applicable to her and every other high government official.