Jim Jordan’s newest project won’t take us to Church

In the mid-1970s, the landmark Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities — known colloquially as the Church Committee, for its chair, Sen. Frank Church — exposed myriad law enforcement and intelligence abuses.

And since last week, it’s been widely reported Kevin McCarthy, in his tumultuous bid for House speaker, negotiated a concessions package with his Freedom Caucus detractors that included the creation of a “Church Committee”-like subcommittee. The panel, housed within the House Judiciary Committee, would focus on uncovering the purported partisan bias of federal investigators, notably the FBI, toward Trump and others.

This retributive project of the ultra-right seems to bear little resemblance to the committee it’s invoking as a model.

On Tuesday, the bill to create that new subcommittee — the so-called Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, passed by a vote of 221 to 211. All Democrats opposed.

Some, including Rachel on her show Monday night, have expressed concern about the subcommittee’s mandate, which starts with studying the executive branch’s power to “collect information on or otherwise investigate citizens of the United States, including ongoing criminal investigations.”

Enabling Congress to interfere with pending criminal matters is alarming, especially given that at least one potential member of the subcommittee is believed to be under investigation by Department of Justice. And while the DOJ can be expected to push back, any showdown between two coequal branches of government that begs for resolution by the third — a federal judiciary transformed in former President Donald Trump’s wake — is itself frightening.

But there’s another, more fundamental problem. This retributive project of the ultra-right seems to bear little resemblance to the committee it’s invoking as a model. For starters, the subcommittee, which House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan will lead, would have 15 members (including Jordan and Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee), no more than six of whom could be Democrats and all of whom have to be approved by McCarthy, the GOP’s speaker-by-a-squeaker.

Jordan has never been known for smoothing the waters; he even explained a near-brawl on the House floor last week as the sort of conflict the founders intended. By contrast, the Church Committee was almost evenly divided with six Democrats to five Republicans. And to the extent Church, a Democrat from Idaho, was criticized for partisan leanings, it was for catering too much to his committee’s Republicans in his quest for unanimity.

Jordan seems uninterested in excavating any abuse more than a couple of years old — and certainly none that would have occurred on Trump or any Republican’s watch.

More significantly, the Church Committee used a wide lens to examine intelligence failures and lawlessness. It reviewed multiple agencies on a timeframe spanning multiple presidencies of both parties. And it did so, despite Church’s own dreams of higher office, without any personal or partisan fixations. That sounds worlds away from the “radical left” and “Biden Crime Family” blame-and-shame game Jordan and House Republicans have in mind.

Indeed, as Nadler reflected earlier this week, the new Jordan effort is “likely to be more similar to the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee of the mid-20th century.” Or as Rep. Jim McGovern said even more pointedly Tuesday, “I call it the McCarthy Committee, and I’m not talking about Kevin.”

So what are the most glaring differences between the Church Committee and the GOP’s new subcommittee?

  • First, the Church Committee was itself an outgrowth of the Senate Watergate Committee. That earlier investigation produced evidence that President Richard Nixon was using intelligence agencies to conduct “constitutionally questionable” domestic surveillance. In other words, the Church Committee followed up on the considerable proof amassed during an earlier committee’s investigation of a constitutional crisis. (Sound familiar?) It wasn’t designed, as this new effort was, to distract from, rebuke or offer a counter-narrative to inconvenient truths.
  • Second, the creation of the Church Committee was overwhelmingly supported in the Senate by an 82-4 vote. The resolution authorizing this newest subcommittee, however, was approved by a narrow margin and zero Democratic support.
  • Third, when Church and his vice chair, Republican Sen. John Tower,sought buy-in from the executive branch, then-President Gerald Ford promised that the White House and agencies would cooperate with their investigation. That promise was both selective and non-committal, but it was nonetheless partially fulfilled. While the Ford White House assumed control over what was provided to the committee by the CIA and others, the committee ultimately “uncovered shocking facts and intelligence operations that had been unknown to both Congress and the public.” 

As the Senate Historical Office details in its summary of the Church Committee’s work:

Though staff did not always receive documents in a timely fashion, they enjoyed unprecedented access to materials that had never before been made public. Perhaps the most well-known of these internal reports, the CIA’s so-called ‘Family Jewels,’ outlined the agency’s misdeeds dating back to President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration. This report, as well as those found in other agencies, provided road maps that staff investigators used to piece together complicated histories of domestic, foreign, and military intelligence programs during the Cold War era.

As a result, the committee’s multi-volume final report details intelligence abuses going back to the FDR era, concluding that those abuses were “not the ‘product of any single party, administration or man,’ but had developed as America rose to become a superpower during a global Cold War.” Here, on the other hand, Jordan seems uninterested in excavating any abuse more than a couple of years old — and certainly none that would have occurred on Trump or any Republican’s watch.

Months ago, New York magazine saw this moment coming and highlighted that the Church Committee’s primary concern “was lack of control of the agencies by responsible political authorities, who often had their own agendas.” But, as writer Ed Kilgore explained in his piece, McCarthy’s version would have one, nakedly partisan aim: to restore Trump, who arguably weaponized multiple agencies in service of his image and thirst for power, to the presidency. And whether one sees the Church Committee as a success or a missed opportunity, there’s nothing Church-like about Jordan’s goals.