A bipartisan group of senators is pressing for the creation of a special panel—known as a select committee—to investigate and provide the definitive account of Russian cyberattacks on the U.S. political system.
Sens. John McCain. R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., along with incoming Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., called for a select committee on cybersecurity in a bipartisan letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
McConnell, so far, has resisted the idea of appointing a unique investigative body, preferring to go through the normal process where already existing committees with jurisdiction over cybersecurity issues, like the Intelligence Committee and Armed Services Committee, conduct their own probes.
“We don’t need to set up a special committee to do what we [can do] through regular order,” McConnell said Monday night on Kentucky Educational Television.
Supporters of the select committee say Russia’s actions are extraordinary enough to warrant an all-encompassing investigation.
“Recent reports of Russian interference in our election should alarm every American,” the bipartisan group of senators wrote on Sunday to McConnell. “Cybersecurity is the ultimate cross-jurisdictional challenge, and we must take a comprehensive approach to meet this challenge effectively.”
McConnell would need to allow the vote on a select committee to go forward, although senators could force a vote on the floor.
According to media reports, the intelligence community, including the CIA and FBI, have concluded that hackers associated with Russia broke into the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee and other political organizations, and leaked emails during the presidential campaign.
The CIA recently told Congress that Russia tried to help President-elect Donald Trump win. A new leaked memo shows the FBI director backs that assessment. Russia hackers also tried to hack the Republican National Committee, The Wall Street Journal reports.
The procedural debate is important because forming a select committee would raise the public profile of Russia’s actions at a time when Trump continues to reject the conclusions of intelligence reports.
The Daily Signal below explains the many questions surrounding a potential select committee.
What Is a Select Committee and How Is One Formed?
Congress usually forms a select committee to examine a specific issue for a limited time, but they are rarely created. When they are, these special panels tackle issues that span the different coverage areas of the normal committee structure.
“You can imagine if lots of committees looked into this, you would get different answers and interpretations of evidence, so there is a lot of value in having a select committee that produces the definitive account,” Susan Hennessey, a fellow in national security in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview with The Daily Signal.
Members and senators in either chamber of Congress could introduce a resolution creating a select committee. The House and Senate could also authorize a select committee together, but it’s more likely to be handled by one chamber individually.
On Monday, Politico reported that Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., plans to introduce a bill that, if passed, would mandate a new select Senate committee on cybersecurity.
A stand-alone proposal in the Senate creating a select committee would require 60 votes to overcome a filibuster attempt. The president cannot veto the imposition of a select committee.
Select committees are made up of lawmakers from both parties chosen by leadership.
What Would a Select Committee on Cybersecurity Do?
Lawmakers spell out the specific duties of a select committee in the resolution mandating its creation.
“The role could be framed as a committee just investigating Russian cyberattacks or it could be framed more broadly and be about foreign cyberattacks conducted on the U.S. since a specified date,” said Jordan Tama of American University, who specializes in foreign and national security policymaking.
Schumer, McCain, Graham, and Reed, indicated to McConnell that the panel they propose would focus not only on Russian cyber behavior but also potential threats from other countries, including China and Iran.
The senators recommended that such a committee also develop “comprehensive recommendations and, as necessary, new legislation to modernize our nation’s laws, governmental organization, and related practices to meet this challenge.”
Typically, however, select committees do not have direct legislative authority, meaning they cannot issue legislation. They usually devise a report with recommendations for action, and lawmakers could use the findings to separately introduce legislation outside the committee structure.
A select committee does have the power to issue subpoenas, and they would likely hold high-profile news conferences and hearings, bringing more attention to the Russian hacking issue.
Supporters of a major investigation say that would be the biggest role of a select committee—credibly telling the story of what happened to a still skeptical public.
A new Politico/Morning Consult poll revealed that just one-third of Americans say they believe Russia influenced the 2016 presidential election.
“Many Americans still don’t believe that the Russians influenced our elections, and vast majorities for Russians don’t believe it,” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia in the Obama administration, wrote in an email to The Daily Signal. “You need firm attribution before taking steps against Russian individuals or agencies.”
What Other Select Committees Has Congress Authorized?
The most prominent recent example is the House select committee investigating the 2012 attacks on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Democrats have dismissed that committee as partisan.
Select committees have a longer history in the Senate where dozens have been formed, according to CNN, including ones probing the Iran-Contra scandal, Watergate, and the Ku Klux Klan.
The 9/11 Commission, set up to provide the “complete account” of the Sept. 11 attacks, is perhaps the most recognized congressionally-authorized investigation. However, an independent commission is different than a select committee in significant ways.
The 9/11 Commission included bipartisan members who were not in elected office at the time, but they had previous legislative and executive experience.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has led a chorus in her caucus calling for an independent commission into Russia’s actions this election. Republicans so far are not supporting that effort.
Does the Trump Administration Have to Follow the Committee’s Findings?
Trump has downplayed the Russian hacks so far, and if he maintains that stance, he could clash with Republicans in Congress if they participate in a select committee that proposes actions against the Kremlin.
“The president is not bound by the findings, nor does he have to agree with it,” Hennessey said. “To the extent the committee’s report includes classified information, he does have some control over what can be made public.”
Tama said Trump could also limit the degree to which the executive branch cooperates with a select committee investigation.
“With an investigation, the bigger, more direct conflict is whether Trump will allow or encourage executive branch officials to cooperate with the investigation,” Tama said. “Any congressional investigation can be made more complicated if the president is not cooperating either directly or implicitly by saying he doesn’t want the executive branch to cooperate.”
Reince Priebus, White House chief of staff, suggested Sunday that Trump will accept Russia’s role in the hacking if the intelligence agencies draft a report with consensus agreement.
“I think he would accept the conclusion if they would get together, put out a report, and show the American people they are on the same page,” Priebus said on “Fox News Sunday.”