Bergdahl, Benghazi, and Beyond: The Politics of Congressional Investigations

Iran-Contra-HearingsIs Bowe Bergdahl the new Benghazi?
It would certainly seem so.  Several Republicans are calling for investigations into the now infamous prisoner swap.  Calls for impeachment exist.  And, of course, Hillary Clinton’s name has been linked to the Bergdahl scandal.

In an even broader sense, we might link the Bergdahl scandal with the IRS targeting investigation, which is still simmering, and the VA scandal, where Congress is almost certain to investigate further.

But which investigation is a “warranted” examination of legislative-executive authority, which is motivated by legislators’ “problem-solving” motivations, and which investigation is simply “political theatre?”

I think most would agree that continued investigations into the VA are warranted.  Even the IRS targeting scandal deserved at least a cursory look in my mind.  Are the Bergdahl and Benghazi investigations warranted?  It depends on your political leanings; scandals are highly subjective creatures.

Does this mean we can’t systematically examine the politics of congressional investigations?  Should we be surprised at the volume and intensity of congressional investigation in the modern Congress?

In both instances, the answer is: No.

In an excellent article appropriately titled “Divided We Quarrel,” political scientists David C.W. Parker and Matthew Dull examined the dynamics of divided government, congressional polarization, and congressional investigations of the executive branch.  Parker and Dull collected an impressive dataset of congressional investigations from 1947 to 2004 including their frequency, duration (measured in days), and intensity (measured as the number of published pages).

Here’s what Parker and Dull found:

  • Divided government is indeed associated with more frequent and longer investigations of the executive branch.
  • Legislative polarization is also associated with more intense investigations.
  • However… divided government and polarization increase the frequency and duration of congressional investigations in the House but not the Senate.
  • And finally, when the presidential is popular, Congress initiates fewer and less intensive investigations of the executive branch.

I don’t think Parker and Dull’s results could fit the current Congress’s political environment better.  Indeed, the president is unpopular, Congress is polarized by any measure, we have a situation where both parties are sharing power, and investigations in the House far outpace investigations in the Senate.

So, why is this relevant?  For starters, while we can’t point to a specific investigation or scandal and say it’s “obviously political,” we do know in a general sense that investigations are political endeavors. From a theoretical perspective, this research highlights the critically important role that parties play in the U.S. Congress (for better or worse).  While it may seem surprising to non-political scientists, for decades the prevailing wisdom was that parties didn’t matter all that much.  (In fact, the title of Parker and Dull’s article is a response to David Mayhew’s famous “Divided We Govern.”)  Lastly, while some of the dynamics uncovered are indeed intuitive, others (like presidential approval and the bicameral differences) are not.  In this sense, Parker and Dull’s work helps situate contemporary congressional investigations in a broader institutional framework (including the transition from the era of strong committees to the current era of strong parties) and highlight key determinants of congressional behavior.