Bipartisan Commission Dies From Lack of Bipartisanship

The country is in peril.

To the surprise of perhaps only Susan Collins, there were not 60 votes in the US Senate to authorize a bipartisan commission to study the Republican-led riot in the building where Senators work. WaPo chief correspondent Dan Balz explains in a news report (“The Senate vote on the bipartisan Jan. 6 commission showed Trump’s power and a government under duress“) that doubles as an editorial:

Nearly five months after a pro-Trump mob of rioters stormed the Capitol, Senate Republicans have delivered another blow to the country, blocking the creation of an independent commission to investigate the attacks. It was a partisan act and another reflection of democracy under stress.

Led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), all but a handful of Republican senators joined to scuttle creation of a commission that would have been given the authority and resources to probe more fully what happened and why on that terrible day in January. Absent the use of a filibuster, there were enough votes to let the commission go forward.

Republicans had their reasons, or so they said, for doing what they did. There were, for example, aspects of the bipartisan agreement that led to the legislation to create the commission that they didn’t like. But the most important reason was their fear that Democrats would use the independent commission’s work against Republican candidates in next year’s elections by keeping alive President Donald Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 attacks and his misdeeds ahead of it.

Many Republican elected officials want Trump to go away. They want him in their rearview mirrors. They want the upcoming midterm elections to be fought in an atmosphere free of the former president and focused on President Biden. That’s why Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has been such an irritant to GOP leaders, because she refuses to turn away from what Trump’s actions produced on Jan. 6 and, she fears, could provoke again.

Her colleagues are afraid to be more affirmative and aggressive in challenging the former president. They fear Trump, and they fear his followers, who now dominate the GOP rank-and-file, and so they voted on Friday to protect the former president by obstructing the commission, hoping that would protect themselves next year. The vote again showed the hold that Trump has on his party.

Republicans are counting on normal patterns of midterm elections — a backlash against a new president, lower overall turnout and greater energy among members of the party out of power — to restore their majorities in the House and Senate. They don’t want Trump to be a front-and-center issue. They don’t want voters to be reminded why they decided to fire Trump after a single term.

Why not keep the issue of Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 alive as part of a deeper investigation? Why not keep it alive at least long enough for a commission with independence, sufficient resources and subpoena power to take testimony, develop a fact-based timeline and produce recommendations about Capitol security and the protection of democracy itself? What do they really fear would be revealed?

McConnell’s explanation is that congressional committees are already doing the necessary work, that there are no new facts to be discovered. He described the independent commission as “extraneous,” though 35 members of his party voted to approve its creation when the legislation passed the House.

Hoping to salvage the commission, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) — one of six Republicans who joined all the Democrats present to support it — had put together some changes to assuage concerns that Democrats could tilt the commission staff in their favor and to assure that its powers were evenly divided between Democratic and Republican appointees. McConnell was having none of it.

McConnell also said he doubted that such a commission could promote healing in the country, which is the same argument some Republicans used to vote against impeaching and convicting Trump earlier this year for his role in whipping up the mob.

Healing is not the express purpose of an independent commission. It could be argued that the responsibility for healing the country lies more with elected officials and others in positions of power than with a commission tasked with finding out as much as possible about the Jan. 6 attacks. This much is clear: Blocking the commission will not lead to healing.

His colleague Phillip Bump, who’s merely a national correspondent, adds (“Senate Republicans kill the Jan. 6 commission by a negative-19 vote margin“):

It’s clear that a majority of the House supports creating a bipartisan commission to investigate the attack on the U.S. Capitol that occurred on Jan. 6. It passed a bill to do so earlier this month.

It’s clear that a majority of the Senate supports the commission’s creation, too. On Friday, more than 50 senators — representing 32 states and well over half the country’s population — voted to move forward on doing so.

It’s clear that a majority of the public also supports such a commission. Polling has repeatedly demonstrated that, including a YouGov-Economist survey released this week.

But there will be no such commission. That vote in the Senate aimed at ending a Republican filibuster of the proposal to create a commission needed 60 votes. Instead, it only got 54 — 19 more votes than the opposition, but that doesn’t matter under the Senate’s filibuster rules. That there were three votes for ending the filibuster for every vote to maintain it doesn’t matter.

It could have been a 59-to-0 vote, and the commission would still have been blocked. In fact, 11 senators, nine of them Republicans, didn’t bother to vote at all. It didn’t matter.

You know all of this in the abstract, but it’s still worth walking through how arbitrary the filibuster rules are and how those rules affect legislative results.

I continue to have conflicting thoughts about all of this.

While I remain sympathetic to the ideal of the filibuster—that a country as pluralistic as ours shouldn’t enact major national policy on a bare majority vote—the reality of its use has persuaded me that it’s time for it to go. I continue to believe, though, that this commission is a poor case on which to rest that argument. The poll Bump refers to shows a divided, not a united, country:

This isn’t a case where the public overwhelmingly supports something that’s being blocked by arcane legislative rules. Rather, there’s weak support (barely more than a majority, with only a third or so strongly in favor) that’s extremely polarized along party lines.

Beyond that, while McConnell’s rationale for opposing the commission is purely partisan—he thinks, rightly I believe, that a months-long commission that releases its findings during the 2022 cycle will hurt his party’s chances of retaking the majority—he’s probably right that little good would have come from it. Balz and other supporters of a commission point to the 9/11 predecessor as a model. But the attack there came from foreign enemies. While there was always the possibility that the Bush administration would have come out looking bad, there was a genuine consensus that we needed to look at how the system failed so that we could reorganize the government to prevent a recurrence.

The 1/6 attack, by contrast, was domestic. We know who committed it. It could have been prevented with slightly more robust security measures already within our power. Regardless, there’s no “bipartisan” way to investigate an incident that was perpetrated by a handful of supporters of one political party, egged on by the head of that party, in a futile attempt to forestall the transfer of power to the other party.

The most compelling argument adduced in the comment thread the last time I discussed this was that a commission would be the most legitimate way to investigate the role of Republican Members of Congress in aiding and abetting the perpetrators. I, too, would like a fuller accounting of that and agree that a bipartisan commission might be a cleaner way of doing that than having it be led by Joe Biden’s Justice Department.

But the very atmosphere that led to the Capitol attack makes this impossible. Too many Republicans believe in the Big Lie and there’s no obvious way to change that. The commission wasn’t going to investigate the claims of election fraud—Collins and others wanted to expand its purview but was rightly rebuffed—and there is simply no amount of evidence that would persuade the true believers at this point.

That leaves us where we began: in a very dark place for our democracy. And I see no obvious way out at this point.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, US Politics, US Senate
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    Yes, I suppose there’s no bipartisan way to investigate an attack by a domestic enemy, when one of the parties sides with that enemy.

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  2. Barry says:

    James, even now, when it’s clear that one party literally attacks the country, you still fall back on bipartisanship.

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  3. Teve says:

    POLL: 3 in 4 Republicans Believe Trump Supporters Are NOT to Blame for January 6th Capitol Attack

    It was Antifa and Black Lives Matter, which is why it is super important that we not investigate.

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  4. Thomm says:

    @Barry: remember when James theorized that Boebert wasn’t, in fact, tweeting Pelosi’s location to her followers, but instead was reassuring them that Pelosi was safe? Prepridge Farm remembers.

    Of course the GOP is a cult of personality. That have been all my memory. Before Trump, it was *constant* invocations of Reagan. Paul Ryan’s speech was a return to that. Going by past trends, the worship of all things trump will last another 20 years or so after his death. Yay.

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  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    Well, if an investigation won’t convince 100% of Republicans, what’s the point, amiright? What’s the point of getting the facts on the record? Wouldn’t a more bipartisan investigation come from the Democratic president’s Justice Department?

    Head in the sand, ass in the air, that’s the American path to unity.

    Dr. Joyner’s line of reasoning would be pitiful if he were Sophomore Joyner.

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  6. Teve says:
  7. James Joyner says:

    @Barry: I don’t see how I’m “fall[ing] back on bipartisanship.” The whole point of the post is that it’s impossible when we’re this polarized. We have one party that won’t recognize the legitimacy of an election that was a veritable landslide.

    @Michael Reynolds: That’s a bizarre straw man of my argument. I think 0% of those who think the election was stolen and 0% of those who think Antifa was behind the riot are persuadable. Every sane person already knows Trump supporters were the rioters.

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  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    No, that’s not how persuasion works. Persuasion that fails on Day 1 with 100% of the target audience, may succeed on Day 2 with 5% of the target audience, and on Day 3 with 10% of the target audience. See: the Watergate hearings. See: every advertising campaign ever. See: every proselytizing religion ever, and see: the counterpoint of atheism. People may be slow to ‘get there’ but if you don’t give them a ‘there’ to get to, you’re guaranteed to fail.

    You’re advising pre-emptive surrender, and that is not just wrong, it’s dangerous, because make no mistake, the GOP is planning to steal the next election and one of the ways to stop that happening is to get the facts on the record. Facts have a tendency to stick.

    And the idea that the DoJ subpoenaing Republican Congresspeople and deposing them in secret over the course of months or years is somehow preferable, is nuts.

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  9. CSK says:

    @Teve:
    Oh, you mean like all those middle-aged white guys in MAGA hats yelling “Hang Mike Pence”?

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  10. Scott F. says:

    James, your sub-title states “The country is in peril,” yet your post says the commission wasn’t worth the fight. These two ideas don’t jibe. When in peril, you fight on every front and use every weapon at hand.

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  11. Mike says:

    So we have an attack on the US capital and no investigation. An attack in Benghazi and how many years of investigations? Very sad to see.

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  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    Beyond that, while McConnell’s rationale for opposing the commission is purely partisan—he thinks, rightly I believe, that a months-long commission that releases its findings during the 2022 cycle will hurt his party’s chances of retaking the majority

    BTW, James, you refute your own conclusion. If no minds will be changed, explain the above paragraph.

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  13. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “I don’t see how I’m “fall[ing] back on bipartisanship.” ”

    James, because the real reason, which should have gone into your headline, is that it’ not ‘bipartisanship’, but rather because the GOP supports the insurrection and attack on the US Capital.

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  14. Moosebreath says:

    @James Joyner:

    “Every sane person already knows Trump supporters were the rioters.”

    It is frequently pointed out that 95+% of Americans do not follow the news as much as the average reader here. It is for them that we need to have a full public investigation, so the facts percolate into the public consciousness in a way they haven’t to date.

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  15. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I see little reason to believe anyone is persuadable. A bipartisan commission only works if there’s comity. In this case, every single decision will be contested by the Republican members.

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  16. James Joyner says:

    @Scott F.: Constantly reminding Independents of the riots may well shift some votes. I don’t think anyone who voted for Trump is persuadable and anyone who voted for Biden is likely already persuaded.

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  17. Chip Daniels says:

    @James Joyner:
    It’s fair to say that vey few votes would be changed by a commission. But it’s also true that the fate of the country hangs on those very few votes.

    The elections of 2016 and 2020 were decided by razor thin margins, tens of thousands in pivotal states.

    And like others here have said in this fight we are going to need to fight like hell on every front, with every tool we have.

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  18. Michael Reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    If no one is persuadable, why is Mitch McConnell afraid of losing seats if the commission goes forward? And why do you believe he’s right to worry?

    I’m really not trying to be a dick, but you aren’t going to win this point. You’re just wrong.

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  19. DrDaveT says:

    Bipartisan Commission Dies From Lack of Bipartisanship Sedition.

    FTFY

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  20. DrDaveT says:

    @DrDaveT: (Never mind, fixed it. I got an edit button! Twice!)

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  21. @James:

    While I remain sympathetic to the ideal of the filibuster—that a country as pluralistic as ours shouldn’t enact major national policy on a bare majority vote

    I would appreciate some elaboration on this at some point. I flatly do not understand what level of pluralism is needed to move the mark from 50%+1 for legislative processes to some higher number.

    I also find your formulation of this problematic when applied to the Senate, which is not a strictly representative body in the first place (that is, in some ways your position makes more sense for the House, not the Senate since the Senate is already a counter-majoritarian institution).

    No other legislature in the world has the equivalent of the Senate’s filibuster (at least that I am aware, and I have heard the claim made by scholars who know more about it than I do, including Matthew Shugart and Pippa Norris), why are we so special, especially since there are countries with more significant internal cleavages out there than we have.

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  22. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Your expertise as a Comparativist well outstrips mine but I can’t offhand think of another Western democracy that’s as ideologically split as ours along geographical lines. So, while I find the Senate incredibly problematic, I can at least make an argument for it. Given that we already have a Senate, the need for a filibuster is a harder case to make but, to the extent that we’re going to nationalize policies (and I think local control is increasingly hard to justify simply given the vicissitudes of modernity) then I don’t think we should ram major changes through on slim margins.

    But, again, we’ve turned this into farce, requiring a 60% supermajority to get anything done. That’s unsustainable.

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  23. Kathy says:

    The commission was the GOP’s chance to distance themselves from the insurrection, and cast out those who would take up arms against their own country. Instead they decided to embrace it.

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  24. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “I see little reason to believe anyone is persuadable. ”

    I see many reasons to believe that a lot of people are persuadable, so I win.

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  25. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “Constantly reminding Independents of the riots may well shift some votes. I don’t think anyone who voted for Trump is persuadable and anyone who voted for Biden is likely already persuaded.”

    How many votes (out of over 100 million) put Trump in, and took Trump out?

    James you are walking slowly backwards:
    First you claim, with no basis, that a commission will persuade nobody.

    Second, you admit that a commission will persuade people, albeit not hard-core Trumpers.

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  26. Scott F. says:

    @James Joyner:

    But, again, we’ve turned this into farce, requiring a 60% supermajority to get anything done. That’s unsustainable.

    To be precise, we require a supermajority to move the bill forward for debate. It’s not just that they won’t get anything done, they won’t even talk about it in public. It’s the worst possible outcome.

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  27. I disagree with the idea that investigation isn’t necessary. The security issues are enough reason to conduct one but there’s also the question of the problem of domestic terrorism, which the intelligence community has identified as the biggest threat to the country

    As I said in a comment to Steven Taylor’s post there were 10 investigations of Benghszi. We need at least one of the events of January 6th.

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  28. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis: it’s a popular talking point but we’ve already had at least one congressional hearing on this and it resulted in the impeachment of a President. And everyone but partisan hacks saw the Benghazi hearings as partisan hackery.

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  29. Stormy Dragon says:

    If the filibuster is so great, why aren’t the Republicans pushing to add legislative filibusters in the 24 states where they’re fully in control of the government? Do you think those 24 states are non-functional because they routinely pass things on bare majority votes?

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  30. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: So, first, I’ve explicitly argued here that we should abolish the filibuster as it’s used. Second, a founding principle of the country is that states represent unique sets of interests. A state-level filibuster would make no sense as localities have never been thought to have sovereignty.

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  31. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    can’t offhand think of another Western democracy that’s as ideologically split as ours along geographical lines.

    Belgium? Where the Flanders and Walloon regions essentially see themselves as two distinct countries?

    Canada? Besides the existing split between English and French Canada, there’s a growing ideological divide between the western plans and the rest of the country

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  32. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    Second, a founding principle of the country is that states represent unique sets of interests.

    So your argument is the states, like mythological Avalon, exist as genius loci and that apparently have interests independent of the people who live there, and that if a bare majority of, say, Texas wants to impose a policy on the rest of the state, that’s fine because, like the Fisher King, they must be uniquely in tune with what Texas the state wants and are just imposing its will on the fake Texans colonizing it.

    But it would be unfair for this to occur at the national level because the United States is just an abstract political concept.

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  33. JKB says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    From what I’ve heard is there are 400+ individuals being held in federal custody on charges related to the the Capitol Incursion on January 6th. That’s 400+ investigations. Some number of those may eventually go to trial where the investigation will not only be presented, but also a defense. And if they feel they can actually convict many of these people, they could leverage them to provide information on any larger “conspiracy”. Perhaps after they try those they’ve charged criminally in open court, there will be value added by congressional hearings to tie it all together.

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  34. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Dr. Joyner’s line of reasoning would be pitiful if he were Sophomore Joyner.

    Did Sophomore Joyner alter his post to add the subheading of “The country is in peril” after you posted this.

    The dude is an institutionalist. And the dude can be pretty dense when he wants to be. But, the dude isn’t really tut-tutting this.

    It’s a difference in tone, and even then… not much.

    People are piling onto him for this, when they could be piling on for his other thread where he’s really wrong and bordering on willfully dense.

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  35. @James Joyner:

    I don’t think the Jsnuary impeachment was considered by an Commiteee but was drafted Democratic and immediately put on the floor for a vote

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  36. @JKB:

    None of those investors was public. That’s what I’m selling for

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  37. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Barry: Yeah, this is what I don’t get–the country is broken, but the system must be honored and preserved.

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  38. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: A state-level filibuster would make no sense as localities have never been thought to have sovereignty.”

    It would make it harder for a bare GOP majority to make voting harder.

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  39. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    I can’t offhand think of another Western democracy that’s as ideologically split as ours along geographical lines.

    Urban vs. rural, white vs. non-white, and educated vs. uneducated are not geographic splits. Atlanta has more in common with Chicago than with Macon. The Virginia DC suburbs have more in common with Minneapolis than with Mineral.

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  40. Moosebreath says:

    @DrDaveT:

    “Urban vs. rural, white vs. non-white, and educated vs. uneducated are not geographic splits.”

    Very true, and the locals know it. Among saying for different states:

    Florida — The further north you go, the more in the South you are.

    Pennsylvania — There’s Philadelphia on one side, Pittsburgh on the other, and Alabama in the middle (supposedly coined by James Carville).

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  41. JKB says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    The trials will make the investigations public. And the defense will be public. Or if they decline to prosecute, then there is no reason they can’t release most of the details of the investigations.

    Of course, one problem is the vast majority of those being held without bail by the federal government are only charged with trespassing.

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  42. JKB says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    The impeachment was also based on false information, such as that Officer Sicknick was killed by injuries sustained during the incursion. When the DC medical examiner made his autopsy public, his death was due to having a stroke and did not have any blunt force trauma injuries. It was also based on the false information that at least some of those who entered the Capitol had firearms, which they did no, some purposely leaving firearms outside the Capitol. The very essence of peaceful protest that got a bit too rowdy.

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