In ten terms representing mostly the eastern and southern suburbs of Seattle in Congress, Adam Smith has never been particularly partisan. He’s now the ranking Democratic member of the Armed Services Committee – his district approaches the massive Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and defense spending is a fond subject for Washington state congressmen – and he’s been known to vote with Republicans.
But it’s a long way from Bellevue to Benghazi.
Early on in last month’s marathon House special committee questioning of Hillary Clinton on the deaths in the attack in Libya, Smith declared angrily, “We have heard nothing, not a single, solitary thing that hasn’t been discussed repeatedly.” (There had been seven previous investigations, ruining a lot of the suspense.) Later on, he told Clinton, “The purpose of this committee is to prosecute you. This is unquestionably that, a prosecution.”
Over the course of the 11-hour hearing, Smith, Adam Schiff of California and Elijah Cummings of Maryland led the Democrats in challenging Republicans’ questions, often creating loud exchanges that left Clinton watching silently from the witness chair, a mildly interested observer. For long stretches, the hearing seemed less like C-Span and more like “Crossfire.”
In his highest-profile national moment, the only Northwesterner on the special committee was uncharacteristically combative, reflecting his feelings on the investigation as not only poisonously political, but potentially darkening hopes for a more productive House under new Speaker Paul Ryan.
Compared with his previous experiences in Congress, Smith said last week, in language unusual for him, “This investigation was vastly more partisan. The questions had nothing to do with what happened at Benghazi. It’s all a political exercise from the get-go.”
The progress of the hearing – Republican committee members getting more frustrated, Democrats getting more confidently aggressive, Clinton getting a bump in the polls – would seem to discourage the investigators. But committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., declares himself stoutly determined to proceed, suggesting that the next step might be to subpoena all State Department emails having anything to do with Libya – a tactic Smith finds not only desperate but bewildering.
“Chairman Gowdy does not understand the scope of email in the modern world,” says Smith. “He could spend years on this.”
It’s not something Smith looks forward to, even if it gets him on national television again. There was talk, among the Democratic members, of abandoning the committee, denouncing it as pointless and partisan, and leaving the Republicans to read emails by themselves. But to Smith, “We definitely need to stay on the committee, just to call the Republicans on their partisan action.”
It’s not clear just where the investigation goes next – in addition to the emails, there are other people the Republican members might want to interview – but the issue seems likely to hang fire for the immediate future.
Last week, after Speaker John Boehner quit suddenly in the middle of the session, in the mood of someone unexpectedly paroled, House Republicans managed to come together to elect the reluctant Paul Ryan, who insisted that the atmosphere in the House would change. “It`s a new day,” he declared. “We are wiping the slate clean.”
On the question of defunding Planned Parenthood, a conservative demand with the potential of closing down the entire government unless a spending package is passed by Dec. 11, Ryan said flatly, “I think we need to be very clear about what we can and cannot achieve and not set expectations that we know we can’t reach given the constraints of the Constitution.”
Smith thinks the House atmosphere could improve. ‘I think Paul genuinely wants to try,” he says hopefully. “There is some cause for optimism.” He sees some signs of actual progress, such as the budget agreement passed by Boehner (with mostly Democratic votes) before he escaped, and the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank – whose importance to Boeing also makes it important to congressmen from Washington and the Northwest.
But there could be a complication. “Benghazi is the fly in the ointment for Mr. Ryan,” Smith warns. “Republicans make it difficult to move forward.”
Looking at Congress over the past few years, it might be hard to be too optimistic. But Adam Smith, after two decades in the House with a record of working with Republicans – and a priority list of Northwest issues focusing on defense – sees a possibility, and also a potential peril.
If the special committee extends, as some suspect, deep into the 2016 election year, it won’t encourage good feelings in the House.
After three years and eight investigations, Benghazi could claim more casualties.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 11/4/15.