From the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor to the JFK assassination, from Watergate to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, special commissions and select committees have investigated traumatic events and political scandals. Their purpose was, to the extent possible, to set aside partisan politics and establish a comprehensive, factual record for history.
In 2021, however, most Republican lawmakers are prioritizing loyalty to Donald Trump instead of joining Democrats in forming a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 mob attack at the U.S. Capitol. Questions about lax security precautions, the actions of then-President Trump while the attack took place, and possible coordination among extremist groups remain unanswered.
In this episode of History As It Happens, historian Alvin Felzenberg, who was the chief spokesman for the 9/11 Commission, said Americans deserve a thorough investigation, whether it comes from a commission or another body, of all aspects of the attack on the “citadel of democracy.”
“There needs to be a record of events and factual summary that cannot be debated. We know the time it happened. We know some of the incidents. We have eyewitnesses’ accounts. Once we have all the facts … that leads to a series of recommendations,” Mr. Felzenberg said.
Because Senate Republicans oppose creating a bipartisan commission, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is moving to form a select committee. However, GOP leaders have indicated no interest in cooperating.
The Senate Watergate committee may have set the standard for bipartisan cooperation under the most difficult of circumstances: Key Republican lawmakers and attorneys worked with Democrats to investigate a sitting president who had won in a historic landslide in 1972.
“Nobody said that the Watergate committee was politicized. Once they got to the evidence and won the cases in court about what [Nixon] had to release, the issue was over,” Mr. Felzenberg said.
As for the example set by the 9/11 Commission, Mr. Felzenberg said the fact that none of its members was a sitting elected official allowed for its entire focus to be placed on the investigation.
“They had no other interest at all. They had one mission and one mission only. They weren’t being interrupted by other business. They weren’t leaving to go vote or going home to meet with constituents,” Mr. Felzenberg said.
For more of historian Alvin Felzenberg’s thoughts on the importance of special commissions and committees in U.S. history, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.