Finally, Congress appears ready to hold some high-profile hearings -- except they won't be about the most important scandals of the past decade, like how the United States was misled into the Iraq invasion, how the Afghan War was bungled, how torture became a U.S. practice, or how bank deregulation and Wall Street greed nearly destroyed the economy.
In a de'jÃ vu moment, Official Washington seems to be following the old script from the early years of Bill Clinton's administration with almost identical results.
After winning the White House in 1992, Democrats chose to ignore major crimes of the prior Republican administrations -- apparently as a gesture of bipartisanship -- only to have Republicans offer no reciprocity, stage a quick electoral comeback and then launch congressional investigations into trivial Democratic misdeeds.
That's what is shaping up again as Republicans reclaim control of the House on Wednesday with promises to conduct investigations that will put the Obama administration further on the defensive and will reinforce the dominant GOP narrative that "government is the problem."
So, instead of examining the sweeping deregulation of Big Banks and the perverse incentives on Wall Street -- as culprits in the financial collapse of 2008 -- Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican taking over the House Oversight Committee, has vowed to turn the congressional spotlight on the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in supporting loans to homebuyers.
In other words, we can expect the economic crisis to be laid at the door of government-supported efforts to help Americans buy homes, rather than the massive private corruption in the securitizing of sub-prime loans offered by "shadow banks" and then traded by Wall Street firms in reckless gambling.
Similarly, Issa will target government regulation -- rather than the consequences of unwise deregulation -- as the cause for high unemployment.
On another front, instead of exposing the government deception and wishful thinking that trapped American troops in two botched wars, Issa plans to go after the Obama administration for not attacking WikiLeaks more aggressively over its publication of classified government records.
Another Republican chairman, Rep. Peter King of New York, has vowed to use the Homeland Security Committee to examine not the abuse of Muslim prisoners captured in George W. Bush's "war on terror" nor the dangers created by Islamophobia, but the supposed radicalization of Muslims in the United States. [See Washington Post, Jan. 4, 2011.]
King's hearings are shaping up as a kind of show trial for an entire ethnic/religious community not seen in modern U.S. history.
All these investigations can be expected to provide scoops for Fox News and other right-wing media outlets further benefiting Republican candidates in 2012 when the GOP expects to consolidate its control of Congress and reclaim the White House. If the experience of the Clinton years continues to be predictive, the mainstream news media will eagerly clamber onto the right-wing bandwagon in pursuit of scandal stories.
This latest turn of the page on the GOP's old get-Clinton playbook was, of course, not unexpected. What remains extraordinary is how clueless the Democrats continue to be about the importance of official investigations in educating -- or mis-educating -- the American people.
Good and Bad Investigations
Historically, some congressional investigations -- like Sen. Joe McCarthy's probes into "un-American activities" -- have been witch hunts designed to frighten the public and intimidate dissenters, but others -- like the Watergate hearings and Sen. J. William Fulbright's examination of the Vietnam War -- have helped Americans understand serious abuses of government power.
Indeed, those Vietnam-Watergate experiences of the 1970s convinced Republicans that they needed to be more aggressive in defending the political flanks of their leaders and in taking the fight to the Democrats when the opportunity presented itself.
Another reaction to those investigations was the determination of wealthy conservatives to build their own right-wing news media and fund attack groups to go after independent-minded mainstream journalists.