House Republicans unleashed a barrage of oversight measures against the Obama administration last week, virtually guaranteeing Benghazi and the IRS will be a big part of the debate ahead of the November elections — and keeping an already energized GOP base fired up as voters head to the polls.
Over a matter of hours on May 2, House GOP leaders subpoenaed Secretary of State John Kerry; declared they would empanel a special committee to investigate the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi, Libya; and announced a vote to appoint a special counsel to investigate whether the IRS targeted groups for political purposes.
In sum, Republicans hope the investigations will paint a picture of an ineffectual administration, weak on both foreign policy and accountability, according to a political aide. With recent polling showing intensity favoring Republicans this year, the oversight could help the GOP make the case for controlling both chambers of Congress through President Barack Obama’s last two years in office.
Perhaps the most drastic move was the announcement by Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio that he would push ahead on a rare vote to impanel a special committee to investigate the administration’s response to Benghazi.
Members and aides said Boehner was furious to learn that the Obama administration withheld relevant documents from a congressional subpoena, only to release them after a Freedom of Information Act request from the conservative outside group Judicial Watch. A congressional source noted the decision was spurred by infighting among top committee chairmen, but GOP leadership aides denied that charge.
It is not clear if the panel will have any more power than committees already carry to investigate the administration’s response to the Benghazi attacks. But Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., a member of GOP leadership and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the move will help centralize an investigation that has been carried out by several different committees — and is key to holding the administration accountable.
Lankford, also running for a Senate seat, suggested that from a political perspective, the move could do more to convince undecided voters and even Democrats to think skeptically about the White House than gin up Republicans, who already deeply distrust Obama.
“I think the Republican base will be interested in this, but you’re not going to stir up the Republican base just on the issue of, ‘The president is not telling you the whole truth,’” he said. “We can actually tell the general American people — the independents and Democrats — that this is what we’ve become as a nation.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney struggled to explain last week why a memo given to Judicial Watch in response to a FOIA request for Benghazi documents was "explicitly not about Benghazi," referring reporters to the State Department for answers. He argued that the memo was about the broader protests in the region, not about the specific attack.
But Boehner slammed the White House, saying the administration intentionally withheld documents, calling it “a flagrant violation of trust" that "undermines the basic principles of oversight upon which our system of government is built."
The decision to put together an investigative committee is not without risk. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada wasted no time minimizing the new panel as propagating “right-wing conspiracy theories.” That criticism of the effort will only increase if Republicans are unable to unearth new information on the administration’s mishandling of the Benghazi attack aftermath.
It also cannot be overlooked that the Benghazi attack happened while Hillary Rodham Clinton, who could mount a second bid for president in 2016, was serving as secretary of State. A recent Bloomberg poll showed that 51 percent of respondents do not believe Clinton's assertion that she never saw requests for more security at the consulate before the 2012 attack that killed four Americans, including the ambassador.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a member of Oversight, noted that the investigation does have the potential to tarnish Clinton, though he was careful to say this is not the aim.
“If it is real damning to Hillary Clinton and the decision she makes it would certainly affect that,” he said. “Everything has an element of politics in it, so perhaps somewhat. But really what most Americans want is that justice is served.”
It was unclear last week how House Democrats intend to handle the matter. They could simply ignore the panel and refuse to appoint their own members, as the minority did in 2005, when Republicans appointed a special panel to look into the George W. Bush administration response to Hurricane Katrina.
The speaker’s decision came on the heels of Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., subpoenaing Kerry on the same topic, and aides said the special panel will not impede the scheduled May 21 hearing.
Hours after the subpoena, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., issued a statement calling on Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to appoint a special counsel to investigate whether the IRS targeted conservative groups. The measure is part of another long-running GOP investigation, which will reach a head this week when the House is scheduled to vote to hold IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt for refusing to testify on the matter.
“This is far too serious a matter to leave to the discretion of partisan political appointees no matter who is in the White House,” Cantor said in the statement.
House Ways and Means ranking member Sander M. Levin, D-Mich., shot back, however, that the GOP is simply trying to “tar the administration.”
“Another day, another desperate Republican effort to dredge up a political scandal even after a year of evidence has proven otherwise,” he said in a statement.
National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Dan Scarpinato said the oversight measures will focus national negative attention on the administration and show that Republicans should check and balance the president.
“The Democrats desperately wanted this election to be about anything other than Obamacare. They may have gotten their wish, but I don’t think this is necessarily what they were hoping for,” he said.