Early Returns

Senate Committees Make a Big Mess Even Bigger

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

The problem is the format.

Photographer: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on Russia featuring Sally Yates and James Clapper demonstrated why the Senate really needs a select committee appointed to handle the investigation. There were good points to the hearing: Republicans Lindsey Graham and Ben Sasse asked good questions, as did several Democrats. But the rest of the Republicans almost entirely ignored the topic of the hearing. Some focused on Donald Trump's first travel ban, which Yates opposed when she was acting attorney general. Some focused on questions of "unmasking" and on potential media leaks. And Ted Cruz, naturally, asked about Hillary Clinton's emails. Democrats did better, but some of them were more interested in partisan gamesmanship than putting facts on the record and pushing the witnesses to clarify their testimony. 

The problem is the format. Large committees (or subcommittees, in this case) lead to everyone asking (sometimes repetitive) questions; the goal for individual senators is to make a fuss during their questions, not to try to get at the truth. And the investigation ping-pongs around, with this subcommittee calling these witnesses today and other panels calling other witnesses at other times, without any rhyme or reason. 

The solution is still a small Senate select committee similar in size, scope and resources to the Watergate committee. Such a committee could carefully lay out all that we already know: Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election, along with already-clear malfeasance by some Trump people, certainly including former national security adviser Michael Flynn. And it could dig further to nail down the information we don't yet know. Such a committee would be able to find a way to protect classified information while putting on the record and in public what needs to be public. And it could be thorough, unlike the hodgepodge we have now. 

1. Bernard L. Fraga, Sean McElwee, Jesse Rhodes and Brian Schaffner at the Monkey Cage on 2016 turnout. Stronger and stronger evidence that reduced turnout among black voters was a major factor in the outcome. 

2. Sarah Binder on what we learned from House passage of the Republican health-care bill. 

3. Justin Vaughn on what presidents learn in office

4. Seth Masket on the parties and future celebrity candidates.

5. At the Upshot, Nate Cohn argues that the effect of the James Comey letter was smaller than others have estimated. I know a lot of people are sick of this stuff, but in my view it is important to learn what happened -- not to discredit the winner (Trump won, regardless of the "why"), but because it's always good to understand how elections work. 

6. My Bloomberg View colleague Timothy L. O'Brien on the next frontier in Trump's conflict-ridden administration: the Kushners.

7. Fred Kaplan at Slate on the missing Trump plan to defeat Islamic State

8. And Ed O'Keefe and David Weigel show how to do early invisible primary reporting on the 2020 nomination campaign. Yes, it's important to meet the candidates -- in this case, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar -- but they give equal weight to the party actors who are already involved in fighting over the party's agenda and binding potential candidates to the policies they find most important. More like this, please. 

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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:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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