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As the Republican Party takes tenuous control of the U.S. House of Representatives, senior Republican representatives have vowed to use their new power to launch multiple investigations into pretty much every day of the Biden Presidency.
In a clumsy effort to elevate partisan impulse into actual strategy, Speaker-in-waiting McCarthy has conceded to the demand that House Republicans create one special committee to handle all the investigations into the FBI and Justice Department that FOX News viewers have come to recite like the Rosary: Hunter Biden’s laptop, “mistreatment” of the insurrectionists who stormed our Capitol on January 6, tax audits of conservatives.
Republicans’ grand investigatory hub will be “like the Church Committee,” McCarthy said, harking back almost 50 years to the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, chaired by Idaho Democratic Senator Frank Church.
Republicans’ retaliatory foray no more resembles the Church Committee than Matt Gaetz makes one step back and murmur, “He reminds me of another principled congressional maverick, George McGovern perhaps.” I learned enough working for Frank Church to believe he would have been appalled at Republicans’ distortion of his Committee’s record and livid about their misuse of his name.
I started working for Sen. Church in Washington, DC, in 1975, while he chaired the Select Committee, and for a couple later summers in his Boise field office. A very junior staffer, still in college, I didn’t get to know the senator well. But I understood he’d earned his reputation for thoughtful, principled courage by going toe-to-toe against Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War.
That we both had attended Boise High School commended him to me even more.
Along with his boyhood idol Sen. William Borah, the Progressive “Lion of Idaho,” and Gov. Cecil Andrus, his Gem State political contemporary, Frank Church tops the very, very short list of Idahoans notable enough to merit historians’ attention. A tenacious defender of congressional oversight prerogatives and a clear-eyed skeptic about presidents of both parties’ imperial tendencies, the senator would nevertheless have dismissed present-day Republicans’ revenge ride for three reasons.
First, Sen. Church was a man of unshakable principle, stern and even moralistic enough to earn other senators’ snide nickname of “Frank Sunday School.” No one watching Kevin McCarthy truckle for right-wingers’ votes to clinch the Speaker’s gavel would mistake him for a pillar of rectitude.
Second, despite growing up a proud FDR-type Democrat, Frank Church worked both sides of the aisle when it mattered for his home state, or for our nation. Even a half-century ago, Idaho’s often exaggerated conservatism made political life very tough on Democrats. Church, usually Idaho’s only Democratic member of Congress for a quarter-century, partnered effectively with Republican Senate colleagues on foreign policy, natural resource conservation, and yes, on assuring American intelligence agencies followed the law and respected citizens’ rights. Imagine Jim Jordan asking Adam Schiff to team up to help Republicans learn more about the January 6 insurrection.
Finally, the Church Committee took its mandate seriously to study American intelligence-gathering practices, and to prepare reports recommending legislation that would earn bipartisan congressional support and approval by Republican President Gerald Ford. The Church Committee included Republicans of national stature like Howard Baker of Tennessee and Barry Goldwater of Arizona. The Committee’s bipartisan staff of experts managed top-secret information without a serious leak. And the Committee’s final 1976 report leveled substantive criticism against intelligence agency activities during both Democratic and Republican presidencies.
Imagine Kevin McCarthy asking Nancy Pelosi to join his new investigatory team, or Eric Swalwell, or Jamie Raskin, or Karen Porter. Any new special committee staff will probably staff up with ex-Trump minions and FOX news contributors. No one should stand by hopefully to await the committee’s bipartisan final report or bipartisan approval of any proposed legislation it might generate.
Intelligence agency misdeeds from World War II to the Nixon years needed someone who did his homework, knew how to work with colleagues, and believed in Congress’ duty to exercise principled oversight, to shine a flashlight on their darkest doings. Frank Church was the right man at the right time. A maverick he may have been. A hatchet man he was not.
Karl Brooks is a Boise native, a former staffer for Sen. Frank Church and a former Idaho state senator. He is a professor at the University of Kansas.