Forty-five years ago in February, the Senate Select Committee was created to begin investigating the Watergate scandal.
America is currently watching the spectacle of four different government bodies investigating one case: Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion between the executive branch and the Russian government.
The reason for this curious duplication of efforts lies in way Washington works. Neither the House and Senate investigates wrongdoing as unified bodies. Instead all their work is divided between a bewildering array of committees, subcommittees, and commissions.
In addition, the Justice Department can conduct its own investigations through the FBI or special counsels.
So, who is actually investigating what? Let’s start with Congress.
Standing Committees, Select Committees, and Subcommittees
Congressional inquiries are run either by “standing committees” — permanent bodies focused on specific government functions— or “select committees” — ad hoc groups that address specific matters.
Even this distinction isn’t straightforward. Some select committees are treated by House and Senate rules as permanent, standing committees (such as the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence).
To add a little more confusion, “select committees” may also be called “special committees” (e.g., the Senate Special Committee on Intelligence).
Within these committees are subcommittees, which focus on specific matters within the parent committee’s purview.
The Senate currently has 20 committees and 68 subcommittees, covering topics from agriculture to veterans’ affairs. In addition, members of the House and Senate meet together in four joint subcommittees.
The House has 20 standing committees, 95 subcommittees, and one special committee.
Most committees spend their days studying proposed laws. Occasionally, though, some committees will set up special committees to look into the suspected illegalities.
As if there weren’t already enough possibilities for investigative bodies, Congress can also launch independent commissions, which will work outside of any committee. One example is the 9/11 Commission, which was specially created by Congress and charged with issuing a report on its findings. Usually, these commissions involve non-elected experts who are either bipartisan or nonpartisan, and they can’t prosecute anyone; they just issue a report. Currently, there is no special commission looking into Russian meddling.
Finally, there’s a third approach to federal investigations. The Justice Department — which answers to the president and not Congress — can appoint its own, independent investigator—often known as a special prosecutor—which is Robert Mueller’s current role.
Mueller’s name may be a familiar name on the nightly news, but not everyone may know about the rocky road of special prosecuters.
The President and Special Prosecutors: Who’s in Charge?
In 1973, President Nixon fired the Justice Department’s special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who was looking into the president’s involvement in the Watergate scandal.
Later, after Nixon’s resignation, Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act to prevent similar moves by future presidents. The Act put special prosecutors beyond the reach of the president.
In 1983, the title was changed to “special counsel” to make the position sound a little less adversarial.
Congress allowed the Act to expire in 1999, possibly because of the controversy surrounding independent counsel Ken Starr’s investigation into President Bill Clinton’s involvement in the Whitewater real estate scandal. Even though the part of the Act that covers special counsels has expired, the Attorney General still has the right to appoint them.
Now that we’ve covered who does what, where exactly do we stand today?
Who Is Investigating Russian Interference?
Because the law allows so many groups to pursue investigations, four groups are looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible coordination between the White House and the Kremlin:
- The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, originally chaired by congressman Devin Nunes (R-California). Last April, in response to charges that he’d mishandled classified information, Nunes recused himself from the investigation. However, he continues to issue subpoenas and correspond with White House officials about the probe.
- The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The team of Chairman Richard Burr (R – North Carolina) and Mark Warner (D – Virginia) was originally regarded as a good example of a bipartisan inquiry. Lately, their efforts have been hampered by a lack of cooperation from the House Intelligence Committee.
- The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Chuck Grassley (R- Iowa) with a panel including Dianne Feinstein (D – California). It has shown less collegiality than the Senate Intelligence group.
- Finally, there’s the Special Counsel Investigation headed by former FBI director Robert Mueller, who has the power to issue subpoenas, hire staff, request funding and prosecute related federal crimes.
While the Mueller inquiry hasn’t been hampered by the political stalemates of other investigation, it could be terminated at any time by the president, but only indirectly. The president can dismiss the acting Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, and replace him with an official who could terminate the Special Counsel Investigation. According to federal regulations, the Special Counsel can be terminated for a “good cause,” which could include “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, [or] conflict of interest.”
Americans looking for a historical precedent for the current situation might see similarities to the Watergate investigation of 1973. One important difference between the two is that, back then, there was just one investigating body, the Senate Watergate Special Committee. Another big difference, which was recently pointed out by President Nixon’s counsel, John Dean, is that the current inquiry probably has a long way yet to go.
The Watergate investigation ran for two-and-a-half years.
Featured image: Representative Barbara Jordan of Texas sat on the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings. (U.S. House of Representatives)