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Posted at 5:39 p.m. on May 5, 2014
For those lulled into thinking the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has devolved into nothing more than an over-the-top Hollywood-D.C. mashup schmooze fest, one small scene offered a reminder of how real congressional business can get done in the least likely places.
While the gawking was focused on celebrities like the drummer Questlove and the actor Freida Pinto, three prominent Republicans huddled near the bar at one Saturday evening reception: pollster and messaging savant Frank Luntz, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and Rep. Trey Gowdy, a conservative second-termer from South Carolina who’s about to take his first step into the national spotlight.
Their body language made clear the conversation was serious, so glad-handers should please stand clear. Still, it’s safe to assume the talk touched on the House GOP leadership’s decision to reverse course and establish a select House committee to investigate the 2012 terrorist assault on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, announced Monday that Gowdy would be the chairman, because he’s “as dogged, focused and serious-minded as they come.”
For the Republicans, creating the panel is a high-reward as well as a high-risk proposition. On the one hand, its hearings are guaranteed to excite and solidify the party’s conspiratorial and conservative base right through the campaign season, while forcing the White House to keep playing defense on another high-profile front and making life particularly unpleasant for Hillary Rodham Clinton (who was secretary of State during the attack) just as she’s deciding whether to run for president in 2016.
On the other hand, its work will subject the GOP to criticism that perpetuating congressional interest in the incident, which eight Hill committees have already hashed over, is an especially wrong focus in this election year, which should be about promoting policies to put more people to work at home instead of more costly political theatrics about a foreign policy foul-up.
But for the House’s newest would-be chairman, the next six months represent a career-altering opportunity with more potential upsides than downsides.
In the 49-year-old Gowdy, the speaker has selected someone who appears ideally suited to the assignment, based not only on his professional background but also his Hill persona and the politics of the moment. (Plus, he’s the first member of the takeover Class of 2010 to be awarded a post this prestigious.)
Before his election — he upset a sometimes-maverick GOP incumbent, Bob Inglis, in the 2010 primary — Gowdy made his career as a prosecutor. He spent a decade as the district attorney in his home town of Spartanburg, and for six years before that he went after federal crimes as an assistant U.S. attorney.
As a member of the Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform panels since arriving in Congress, he has developed a relatively unusual reputation for a Republican propelled into office by the tea party wave. While his unwaveringly conservative voting record, small-government priorities and communication skills have made his party take notice, he has won kudos as well from many Democrats for his lawyerly, principled and evenhanded approach to both legislating and investigations of the executive branch.
And so, while the most conservative activists in the grass roots are hailing the assignment of the Benghazi gavel to a true believer, many House Republicans are quietly content the job has effectively been taken from Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa of California, whose investigations have become polarizing not only outside the Beltway but also inside the GOP Conference. And many Democrats, while dismissing the new committee as a redundant sideshow, are conceding that Gowdy provides the effort as much initial credibility as anyone.
“I think if you were to ask my chairmen,” Gowdy told my colleague Chris White for his current profile in CQ Roll Call’s “Politics in America,” “they’d probably say, ‘He’s not that smart, but he does prepare, and he asks real good questions’ — like you would expect a prosecutor to.”
His demonstrated commitment to both moral and legal rectitude led to an additional appointment, to the Ethics Committee, last year. And that goes to the heart of what Republicans have been seeking to prove ever since four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed at the consulate 20 months ago. They argue that administration officials have been lying about, covering up or stonewalling over the facts ever since, initially to protect the president’s chances of winning re-election.
The House will vote later this week, probably straight down party lines, to empanel the committee. Its proposed jurisdiction, timetable, budget, investigatory authority and subpoena power have yet to be detailed. But the chairman may have offered a clue to his measured approach a couple of years ago in explaining why his latest dog — a black Labrador companion for pups Judge and Jury — was named Bailiff.
Wouldn’t Executioner be the next logical choice? “Not yet,” Gowdy deadpanned.