Benghazi Oversight: The Composition of the Select Committee

This post provides an initial assessment of the composition of the newly formed House Select Committee on Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi. Over several posts, I will situate the Benghazi select committee in the broader context of oversight of national security as it relates to congressional and executive branch structure. The questions for now are: who is on the committee, who is conspicuously absent—and what do those membership choices say about the committee’s future work?

As suggested by my previous posts (here, here, here, and here), I generally take a dim view of the Benghazi oversight efforts to date because, from the beginning, political opportunism has trumped sober after-action analysis. To my mind, the establishment of the Benghazi select committee looks like an effort to double down on politicized oversight. Nevertheless, the new investigative committee provides a good opportunity to assess some recurring issues in congressional oversight of national security matters.

The Benghazi investigation touches on five Executive Branch entities. The State Department is a central focus because its facilities were attacked and its security and attack response are natural areas of interest. The Intelligence Community is a focus due to threat analysis and the involvement of CIA facilities and personnel in the attack. Analysis of the Benghazi attack also implicates the U.S. military, especially its U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) due to its force posture in the region and its ability – or lack thereof – to respond to an attack on U.S. interests in Libya. Due to then-United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice’s ill-fated appearances on Sunday news programs following the attack, her office fell under scrutiny. Finally, the White House and National Security Council had relevant policy and response coordination roles.

Given the implicated components of the Executive Branch, the composition of the Benghazi Select Committee is worthy of consideration. One would expect that a select committee would be comprised of the committees with primary jurisdiction over the State Department, Defense Department, and Intelligence Community. One might also expect representatives of the committee with interagency oversight jurisdiction, committee appropriations power, and leadership.

Committee assignments provide House members with significant opportunities to develop substantive expertise on matters within their jurisdiction. They have access to the top experts in any field, some of whom can be found on congressional committee staffs. They also attend countless briefings and hearings and regularly participate in fact-finding trips and site visits. Congressional travel is often the object of scorn, but in my experience such trips can be invaluable crash courses in important policy or investigative issues.

Based on my analysis, the list below demonstrates the Benghazi select committee representation, by party, of committees of jurisdiction relevant to the investigation. It only accounts for current committee assignments, and therefore some members may bring expertise to the investigation from prior committee service.

Leadership: 1 R / 0 D
Committee on Foreign Affairs (HFAC): 0 R / 0 D
Committee on Armed Services (HASC): 1 R / 2 D
Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI): 2 R / 1 D
Committee on Oversight & Government Reform (HOGR): 2 R / 1 D
Committee on Appropriations, Defense Subcommittee (HAC-D): 0 R / 0 D
Committee on Appropriations, State & Foreign Ops Subcommittee (HAC-SFO): 0 R / 1 D

Notably, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs has zero representation on the Benghazi select committee. That is a real slap to a committee with primary jurisdiction over the State Department. It is also somewhat unsurprising. In my experience, while HFAC has some talented members and staff, it is much more culturally comfortable addressing legislative authorization and policy oversight than investigative oversight.

The Defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee also has zero representation. It is responsible for appropriations for the U.S. military and the intelligence community, so that is also worthy of note.

The Republicans appointed seven members to the Benghazi select committee (with relevant committees noted): Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC, HOGR), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH, HOGR), Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL, HASC, HAC), Mike Pompeo (R-KS, HPSCI), Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA, HPSCI), Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL, Leadership), and Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN).

Rep. Roskam is Chief Deputy Whip for the Republican Conference, so he likely represents Leadership on the Committee. As such, it is not a surprise that some report he will serve as Speaker Boehner’s eyes and ears. Rep. Roskam’s chief committee assignment – the Committee on Ways and Means – has jurisdiction of no real substantive value to the Benghazi investigation. Similarly, Rep. Brooks’s committee assignments are not a natural substantive fit, but her service on the Committee on Homeland Security could have some relevance. She touts her selection as an effort to lend “fresh eyes” to the Benghazi investigation.

The Democrats objected to the need for the committee as investigative overkill. Further, they demanded equal Democratic and Republican representation on the Benghazi select committee. However, such parity is inconsistent with longstanding House practice of majority representation on committees by the majority party. On balance, it was probably the right decision to participate.

After that initial reluctance, Democrats appointed five members: Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-MD, Ranking Member of HOGR), Adam Smith (D-WA, Ranking Member of HASC), Adam Schiff (D-CA, HPSCI & HAC-SFO), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL, HASC), and Linda Sanchez (D-CA). On the Democratic side, Rep. Sanchez is the only member without committee assignments (she serves on the Committee on Ethics as well as the Committee on Ways and Means) that would naturally explain her assignment to the Benghazi select committee.

In future posts, I will assess intercommittee dynamics attendant to the formation of a select committee. I will also look at recurring issues related to investigations that cut across the jurisdiction of multiple congressional committees and correspondingly implicate multiple components of the Executive Branch. 

About the Author(s)

Andy Wright

Senior Fellow and Founding Editor of Just Security, former Associate Counsel to the President in the White House Counsel’s Office. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyMcCanse.