Bipartisan.

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Trey Gowdy, Meet Sam Ervin

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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Somebody should tell Trey Gowdy about Sam Ervin and Tom Coburn. They could teach him that congressional investigations really can be bipartisan.

In an interview with Politico, the South Carolina congressman, who heads the committee investigating the deaths of four American officials in Benghazi, Libya three years ago, complained that he has "an impossible job.” Which is? “To run a serious fact-centric investigation in a political environment."

Certainly the Benghazi committee, which is scheduled to hear testimony Thursday from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has turned into a political football. Democrats, and even a few Republicans, charge that the main purpose is to knock down Clinton, the front runner for her party's presidential nomination. Gowdy and his allies charge it's the other side that is politicizing the inquiry.

Benghazi

The credibility of the investigation may have been doomed since the probe was launched by House Speaker John Boehner last year. It followed more than a half-dozen other congressional and outside inquiries into the same events.

A new investigation taking a global look at security at American facilities overseas might have been productive. So might a look at the Obama administration’s role in overthrowing the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, after which the country turned into a violent haven for terrorists. Either approach would have exposed Republican as well as Democratic mistakes.

But the focus on the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others at the Benghazi consulate seemed aimed only at Ms. Clinton. Gowdy did little to reassure Democrats on this score.

It does not follow, however, that bipartisan congressional investigations are impossible, even under extreme political pressure. Former Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, twice investigated the 2008 financial crash and the role played by powerful banks. His tough conclusions, sharply critical of Wall Street and especially Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase, were joined by Republicans, first Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and then Arizona's John McCain.

In the House, Republican Tom Davis and Democrat Henry Waxman conducted fact-filled bipartisan investigations of subjects as diverse as steroid use in Major League Baseball and legal protection for whistleblowers.

Less politically fraught topics than Benghazi? OK, then consider Watergate, subject of the most famous congressional inquiry of all. Led by Senator Sam Ervin in 1973-74, the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities took on President Richard Nixon shortly after his overwhelming re-election. Ervin, a North Carolina Democrat, joined his Republican counterpart, Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, in working to uncover the facts of the Watergate scandal, paving the way for impeachment proceedings. (Hillary Rodham was a young staff lawyer on the impeachment inquiry shortly before she married Bill Clinton.)

"There was some caution in beginning but as everyone realized the seriousness, it became very bipartisan," recalls Walker F. Nolan, who was then a young lawyer working for Ervin. "Senators Baker and Ervin really developed a mutual trust."

The televised hearings riveted Americans and produced a consensus that Nixon had to leave office, which he did on Aug. 9, 1974.

More than three decades earlier, Senator Harry Truman led a 1941 bipartisan inquiry into defense contracting abuses in the middle of World War II over the opposition of the military brass. It produced important reforms and paved the Missouri Democrat’s path to the vice presidency.

Critical to these successes were the character and politics of the chairmen. In 1973, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield bypassed Senator Ted Kennedy for the leadership of the Watergate inquiry, turning instead to the conservative Ervin, a constitutional scholar who commanded respect from across the aisle.

By contrast, Trey Gowdy was a polarizing figure from the inception. A former prosecutor, he ran in 2010 against an incumbent Republican who had called on his party to recognize the dangers of climate change and to develop a market solution.

Gowdy never was able to forge a working relationship with the Democrats on his panel and is clashing on television with the ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland. In a revealing slip on a weekend television interview, Gowdy declared, "The seven members of my committee are much more focused on the four dead Americans than we are anyone's presidential aspirations." There are seven Republicans on his committee. There also are five Democrats.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net