Editor’s note: The fight didn’t last long. Moments before a scheduled vote on March 24, House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled the bill that would have repealed the Affordable Care Act. It was a surprisingly swift defeat for a legislative priority talked up by Republicans since the day Obamacare first passed. We asked congressional scholars what the retreat means – and what comes next.
Trump legslative agenda now in serious doubt
Richard A. Arenberg, Brown University
President Trump and the Republican Congressional leadership have suffered a stunning defeat. The inability of the new president and his GOP majority to pass the American Health Care Act in the House places in question their ability to accomplish their central campaign promise of repealing Obamacare. It also creates significant obstacles for the remainder of the Trump legislative agenda, especially the planned tax cut.
The conflicting demands by factions in the health care debate have laid bare huge fissures in the Republican caucus – fissures which had been masked by apparent unity in the wake of Trump’s surprising election. Further, the failure of this first test of the Trump administration and its allies on the Hill raises serious questions about Speaker Ryan’s ability to bridge those gaps.
GOP leaders have been counting on that reduction to the revenue base to permit a large tax reform bill to be passed using the reconciliation process. Reconciliation would permit the tax bill to be passed in the Senate with a simple majority, foreclosing the possibility of a Democratic filibuster.
However, in order to qualify under Senate rules, that bill must be revenue-neutral. The plan to use the tax reductions contained in the American Health Care Act was one of the main reasons that the Republican Congressional leadership convinced Trump to undertake the health care bill first.
The wisdom of that strategy will come under severe scrutiny in the White House in the days ahead.
Will the GOP ever get its act together?
Christopher Sebastian Parker, University of Washington
By now, the GOP should should be tired of this: public implosion.
Ever since the Tea Party showed up on the scene in 2009, the Republican party slips on every banana peel in sight. The fight between the party’s moderate wing and the more reactionary one, led former Senate Minority Leader, Bob Dole (R-KS), to say that neither he, nor president Ronald Reagan, could get elected in today’s GOP.
This was followed by the ouster of former House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (R-VA), who was primaried by Tea Party candidate Dave Brat in 2014. Why? He was perceived as too moderate. He was the first sitting majority leader to lose since 1899.
This was followed by the GOP resignation of Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in 2015 because, he, too, was perceived to be too moderate
Now this. The Freedom Caucus is responsible for the current public rift in the GOP. What’s that old saying? “Be careful what you wish for.” Well, the GOP got its wish to govern, and they’re blowing it.
The Conversation Global’s new series, Politics in the Age of Social Media, examines how governments around the world rely on digital tools to exercise power.
Privacy is no longer a social norm, said Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2010, as social media took a leap to bring more private information into the public domain.
But what does it mean for governments, citizens and the exercise of democracy?
Donald Trump is clearly not the first leader to use his Twitter account as a way to both proclaim his policies and influence the political climate. Social media presents novel challenges to strategic policy and has become a managerial issues for many governments.
But it also offers a free platform for public participation in government affairs. Many argue that the rise of social media technologies can give citizens and observers a better opportunity to identify pitfalls of government and their politics.
As government embrace the role of social media and the influence of negative or positive feedback on the success of their project, they are also using this tool to their advantages by spreading fabricated news.
This much freedom of expression and opinion can be a double-edged sword.
A tool that triggers change
On the positive side, social media include social networking applications such as Facebook and Google+, microblogging services such as Twitter, blogs, video blogs (vlogs), wikis, and media-sharing sites such as YouTube and Flickr, among others.
Today four out of five countries in the world have social media features on their national portals to promote interactive networking and communication with the citizen. Although we don’t have any information about the effectiveness of such tools or whether they are used to their full potential, 20% of these countries shows that they have “resulted in new policy decisions, regulation or service”.
Social media can be an effective tool to trigger changes in government policies and services if well used. It can be used to prevent corruption, as it is a direct method of reaching citizens. In developing countries, corruption is often linked to governmental services that lack automated processes or transparency in payments.
Can new technologies increase government accountability? India was ranked 79th on 176 countries by Transparency International in 2016. Nirzardp/Wikimedia, CC BY
The UK is taking the lead on this issue. Its anti-corruption innovation hub aims to connect several stakeholders – including civil society, law enforcement, and technologies experts – to engage their efforts toward a more transparent society.
With social media, governments can improve and change the way they communicate with their citizens – and even question government projects and policies. In Kazakhstan, for example, a migration-related legislative amendment entered into force early January 2017 and compelled property owners to register people residing in their homes immediately or else face a penalty charge starting in February 2017.
Citizens were unprepared for this requirement, and many responded with indignation on social media. At first, the government ignored this reaction. However, as the growing anger soared via social media, the government took action and introduced a new service to facilitate the registration of temporary citizens.
Shaping political discourse
Increasing digital services have engaged and encourage the public to become more socially responsible and politically involved. But many governments are wary of the power that technology, and most specifically smart media, exert over how citizens’ political involvement.
Popular social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are being censored by many governments. China, South Africa and others are passing laws to regulate the social media sphere.
The dominance of social media allows citizens to have quick access to government information – information whose legitimacy may not be validated. As this happens, the organic image formed in their minds will be affected and changed and an induced image, whether negative or positive, will be formulated.
For example, the top trending topics on social media right now are related to a tweet from Wikileaks claiming that CIA can get into smart electronics – like iPhones and Samsung TVs – to spy on individuals. This series of revelations led Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to see his internet access cut off, allegedly by the government of Ecuador, in October 2016.
For his supporters, this step jeopardizes what they perceive as the voice of truth. WikiLeaks usually spread a mass of sensitive and reliable information into the public domain about politics, society and the economy.
Others state that confidential information should not be published in social media because it might endanger life and could be misinterpreted.
In 2011, social media played a crucial role in the direction of the Arab spring in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, enabling protesters in those countries to share information and disclose the atrocities committed by their own governments. This ignited a “domino effect” that led to mass revolts.
Governments reacted by trying to impose draconian restrictions on social media, from censorship to promoting fake new and propaganda against them.
The dissemination of uncensored information through social media has precipitated a wave of public shows of dissatisfaction, characterized by a mix of demands for better public services, changes in the institutions and instating a socially-legitimated state. Citizens use social media to meet up and interact with different groups, and some of those encounters lead to concrete actions.
Where’s the long-term fix?
But the campaigns that result do not always evolve into positive change.
Egypt and Libya are still facing several major crises over the last years, along with political instability and domestic terrorism. The social media influence that triggered the Arab Spring did not permit these political systems to turn from autocracy to democracy.
Brazil exemplifies a government’s failure to react properly to a massive social media outburst. In June 2013 people took to the streets to protest the rising fares of public transportation. Citizens channeled their anger and outrage through social media to mobilize networks and generate support.
Social media is also used to propagate “fake news” in order to destabilize an organization or a country. The spread of disinformation through social media shows how governments can use the art of communication to channel specific facts to their own citizens – or to the world.
Social media also provide a powerful platform for extremism and hate speech, citizen activities that should compel government action.
Social media may have been used for extreme purposes, to topple presidents, spread calumny, and meddle in internal affairs of foreign countries. But it remains a potent technological tool that governments can use to capture and understand the needs and preferences of their citizens, and to engage them, on their own terms from the very beginning of the process as agencies develop public services.
The April 22 March for Science, like the Women’s March before it, will confront United States President Donald Trump on his home turf – this time to challenge his stance on climate change and vaccinations, among other controversial scientific issues.
But not everyone who supports scientific research and evidence-based policymaking is on board. Some fear that a scientists’ march will reinforce the sceptical conservative narrative that scientists have become an interest group whose findings are politicised. Others are concerned that the march is more about identity politics than science.
From my perspective, the march – which is being planned by the Earth Day Network, League of Extraordinary Scientists and Engineers and the Natural History Museum, among other partner organisations – is a distraction from the existential problems facing the field.
Other questions are far more urgent to restoring society’s faith and hope in science. What is scientists’ responsibility for current anti-elite resentments? Does science contribute to inequality by providing evidence only to those who can pay for it? How do we fix the present crisis in research reproducibility?
So is the march a good idea? To answer this question, we must turn to the scientist and philosopher Micheal Polanyi, whose concept of science as a body politic underpins the logic of the protest.
Both the appeal and the danger of the March for Science lie in its demand that scientists present themselves as a single collective just as Polanyi did in his Cold War classic, The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory. In it, Polanyi defended the importance of scientific contributions to improving Western society in contrast to the Soviet Union’s model of government-controlled research.
Polanyi was a polymath, that rare combination of natural and social scientist. He passionately defended science from central planning and political interests, including by insisting that science depends on personal, tacit, elusive and unpredictable judgements – that is, on the individual’s decision on whether to accept or reject a scientific claim. Polanyi was so radically dedicated to academic freedom that he feared undermining it would make scientific truth impossible and lead to totalitarianism.
The scientists’ march on Washington inevitably invokes Polanyi. It is inspired by his belief in an open society – one characterised by a flexible structure, freedom of belief and the wide spread of information.
A market for good and services
But does Polanyi’s case make sense in the current era?
Polanyi recognised that Western science is, ultimately, a capitalist system. Like any market of goods and services, science comprises individual agents operating independently to achieve a collective good, guided by an invisible hand.
Scientists thus undertake research not to further human knowledge but to satisfy their own urges and curiosity, just as in Adam Smith’s example the baker makes the bread not out of sympathy for the hunger of mankind but to make a living. In both cases this results in a common good.
There is a difference between bakers and scientists, though. For Polanyi:
It appears, at first sight, that I have assimilated the pursuit of science to the market. But the emphasis should be in the opposite direction. The self coordination of independent scientists embodies a higher principle, a principle which is reduced to the mechanism of the market when applied to the production and distribution of material goods.
Gone the ‘Republic of Science’
Polanyi was aligning science with the economic model of the 1960s. But today his assumptions, both about the market and about science itself, are problematic. And so, too, is the scientists’ march on the US capital, for adopting the same vision of a highly principled science.
Does the market actually work as Adam Smith said? That’s questionable in the current times: economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller have argued that the principle of the invisible hand now needs revisiting. To survive in our consumerist society, every player must exploit the market by any possible means, including by taking advantage of consumer weaknesses.
To wit, companies market food with unhealthy ingredients because they attract consumers; selling a healthy version would drive them out of the market. As one scientist remarked to The Economist, “There is no cost to getting things wrong. The cost is not getting them published”.
Polanyi also believed in a “Republic of Science” in which astronomers, physicists, biologists, and the like constituted a “Society of Explorers”. In their quest for their own intellectual satisfaction, scientists help society to achieve the goal of “self-improvement”.
That vision is difficult to recognise now. Evidence is used to promote political agendas and raise profits. More worryingly, the entire evidence-based policy paradigm is flawed by a power asymmetry: those with the deepest pockets command the largest and most advertised evidence.
A third victim of present times is the idea – central to Polanyi’s argument for a Republic of Science – that scientists are capable of keeping their house in order. In the 1960s, scientists still worked in interconnected communities of practice; they knew each other personally. For Polanyi, the overlap among different scientific fields allowed scientists to “exercise a sound critical judgement between disciplines”, ensuring self-governance and accountability.
Today, science is driven by fierce competition and complex technologies. Who can read or even begin to understand the two million scientific articles published each year?
Elijah Millgram calls this phenomenon the “New Endarkment” (the opposite of enlightenment), in which scientists have been transformed into veritable “methodological aliens” to one another.
The classic vision of science providing society with truth, power and legitimacy is a master narrative whose time has expired. The Washington March for Science organisers have failed to account for the fact that science has devolved into what Polanyi feared: it’s an engine for growth and profit.
A march suggests that the biggest problem facing science today is a post-truth White House. But that is an easy let off. Science’s true predicaments existed before January 2 2017, and they will outlive this administration.
Our activism would be better inspired by the radical 1970s-era movements that sought to change the world by changing first science itself. They sought to provide scientific knowledge and technical expertise to local populations and minority communities while giving those same groups a chance to shape the questions asked of science. These movements fizzled out in the 1990s but echoes of their programmatic stance can be found in a recent editorial in Nature.
What do Ron Paul, Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump have in common? They’ve all promised to “drain the swamp” of Washington politics.
These ambitious “hydraulic engineers” rely on a phrase that is deeply mired in our political discourse. The metaphor gets its clout from the notion that Washington was built in an actual physical swamp, whose foul landscape has somehow nourished rotten politics.
The assumption is just plain wrong: Washington was never a swamp, as I’ve discovered in exploring its first two centuries.
Establishing a capital
George Washington knew exactly what he was doing in early 1791 when he led the three-member commission that Congress had authorized to pick the site for the nation’s capital. There was never much doubt that the new federal district and city would be near the head of navigation on the Potomac River, adjacent to the thriving port town of Georgetown and well away from the squishy margins of Chesapeake Bay. Washington knew the region intimately as a nearby landowner and resident, and the site for Washington looked much like his home at Mount Vernon – a rolling riverside terrain of old tobacco fields.
Like many other early American cities such as Philadelphia and Cincinnati, Washington was built on a firm and dry riverbank. The land sloped steadily upward away from the Potomac between Rock Creek and the Anacostia River, then called the Eastern Branch of the Potomac.
The spurs of land that extended northward from the main river were immediately obvious to Pierre L’Enfant, the French immigrant who mapped out the streets and squares for the new city. He picked one high point for the presidential mansion and one for the houses of Congress. After all, it’s Capitol Hill, originally called Jenkins Hill, not Capitol Slough.
Flowing between the Capitol and White House was Tiber Creek, a perfectly respectable watercourse whose route took it southward, roughly along North Capitol Avenue, skirted the future Union Station Plaza and turned west where Constitution Avenue now runs. The western part of the creek was turned into the Washington City Canal in 1815. The canal was pretty unpleasant by the 1840s, but that was because of inadequate sewers, not because of inherent swampiness.
Pictorial panoramas of the city proliferated during the 19th century as ways to instill national pride in Washington, and are one of the best sources for understanding early Washington. Leaf through the images in the Library of Congress and you’ll see a dry landscape with buildings that would not have survived to the present had their foundations been sunk in muck. The Smithsonian Castle, for example, has been standing straight since the late 1840s.
Map from Harper’s Magazine, 1852. Library of Congress, CC BY
Early maps show the same. In 1826, Anne Royall, possibly the first female professional journalist in the United States and author of “Sketches of History, Life and Manners, in the United States,” described “the elevated site of the city; its undulating surface, covered with very handsome buildings.” She continued her inventory of the city without mentioning a single swamp and concluded, perhaps with too much enthusiasm, that “it is not in the power of imagination to conceive a scene so replete with every species of beauty.”
Visitors, especially from Britain, enjoyed needling the new city, but it was the manners and pretensions of its inhabitants that were the lightning rod for criticism, not the landscape. In 1830, English visitor Frances Trollope, usually happy to criticism anything American, wrote: “I was delighted with the whole aspect of Washington, light, cheerful, and airy; it reminded me of our fashionable watering-places.”
The truly muddiest episode in Washington’s development came in the mid-19th century. After the Civil War, decades of farming in the Potomac River hinterland led to erosion that sent masses of silt down river. As the Potomac slowed below its last rapids – where the river entered the District of Columbia – the silt precipitated into massive mudflats on the city side of the river.
In the 1880s and 1890s, the Corps of Engineers began to reshape the flats into the Reflecting Pool, Tidal Basin and hundreds of acres of adjacent park lands for presidential memorials and blossoming cherry trees, creating a riverfront park that nobody today would associate with the word “swamp.”
None of this is to say that the capital lived up to George Washington’s vision of a comprehensive metropolis with commerce and culture to rival or surpass Philadelphia. The Erie Canal with its boost to New York certainly put a crimp on Washington’s ambitions, but it was the aggressive growth of Baltimore that made Washington an also-ran in Mid-Atlantic commerce. English commentator James Bryce wrote in “The American Commonwealth” that the United States was the only great country without a true capital, but that was a dig at New York as much as at Washington.
It might be time to retire the metaphor and quit trying to pull the plug on Washington.
Politicians who have spent any time in Washington (hey, Nancy Pelosi) should know better. After all, the city is filled with neighborhoods with names like Friendship Heights, Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Crestwood, Washington Highlands and “fine view” (Kalorama).
Having summered in Washington, I’m not writing to defend the climate. But a steam bath does not make a swamp. I don’t expect the facts of Washington’s historical geography will fully undercut a catchy bipartisan slogan, but take it for what it is – a facile phrase without an anchor in the city’s history.
When news breaks about wrongdoings of our favorite politician, the other side inevitably argues that we have a scandal on our hands. We like to think that our superior grasp of logic is what enables us to reason through and reject the other side’s concerns.
But, a series of three studies I recently published suggest such decisions are not just the result of reasoning. Rather, feeling moral aversion toward political opponents compels us toward positions that help our team “win.” This is true even if it means adopting positions with which we’d otherwise disagree.
Here’s the effect in a nutshell: Imagine that you walked into an ice cream shop on Election Day. You discover that the shop is filled with supporters of the presidential candidate you oppose, and you find supporters of that candidate morally abhorrent. When you get to the front of the line, the worker tells you all of the other customers just ordered red velvet – normally your favorite flavor.
My studies demonstrated that when asked to order, you are likely to feel an urge to stray from your favorite flavor toward one you like less, politically polarizing an otherwise innocuous decision.
Whatever they think, think the opposite
To understand what’s meant by “urge” here, it helps to understand the Stroop effect. In this classic experiment, people see a single word and are asked to name the color in which the word is printed. When the color and the word match – for example, “red” printed in red – the task is easy. When the color and the word are incongruent – for example, “red” printed in blue – the task is harder. People feel an impulse, or “urge,” to accidentally read the word. This urge interferes with the task of naming the color, and what should be a simple task becomes oddly difficult.
A theory of morality put forth by Jonathan Haidt suggests that morals “blind” people to alternative viewpoints such that even considering the other side’s opinions is taboo. With that theory in mind, I thought that moral aversion might be a social cause of unproductive urges similar to urges experienced in the Stroop task. That is, just as people in the Stroop task feel the impulse to incorrectly read the word, I thought that strong moral beliefs might cause people to feel impulses to make decisions that maximize their distance from people they believe have different morals.
How the test worked
Here’s how I tested it:
I first had people do several Stroop trials to make them aware of what that urge to make an error feels like.
Next, I asked people six fairly trivial consumer choice questions, such as preference for car color (forest green vs. silver) or vacuum brand (Hoover vs. Dirt Devil).
Here’s the twist: After answering each question, participants were told how a majority of other participants answered the same question. The identity of this majority group was random. It could be either a group that everyone belonged to (for example, Americans) or a more politically charged group (for example, Trump supporters, Clinton supporters or white supremacists).
Finally, I showed participants the set of questions a second time, and asked them to simply state their previous answer a second time. I also asked participants to rate their urge to change their answer – similar to the urge to make an error in the Stroop test.
This should have been straightforward.
Participants were not asked to evaluate the majority answer or reconsider their opinion in any way. Still, just like the interference felt in the Stroop task, knowing the majority response caused people to feel an urge to give the wrong answer.
When participants belonged to the majority group, they reported heightened urges to make an error when they had previously disagreed with the majority. Despite just being asked to repeat what they said a moment ago on a fairly trivial opinion question, they felt a conformist urge.
Similarly, when participants had strong moral distaste for the majority group, they reported heightened urges to make an error when they agreed with the group. In other words, participants’ initial responses were now morally “tainted,” and, even for these rather inconsequential questions, they felt an urge to abandon that response and distance themselves from their opponents. This urge made the trivial task of stating their opinion again slightly more difficult.
‘Hive mind’ and passive effects
As America is more ideologically divided now than any other point in history, these results illuminate two things about the psychology behind political polarization.
First, people might think they are able to use their reasoning to decide whether, say, a minimum wage increase will have positive or negative consequences. However, moral impulses have likely already nudged people toward disagreeing with their opponents before any deliberative thinking on the issue has begun.
Second, the effects observed here are likely a passive process. Participants did not want to feel urges to make an error in the Stroop task, and they likely did not want to feel urges to contradict their own opinions in my studies. The urges just happen as a result of a morality-driven psychology.
These results suggest that efforts to bring those on the fringe closer to the middle will likely fall on deaf ears. A more optimistic interpretation is that polarization might have its roots in unintentional partisan urges. While there is no shortage of moral issues that lead to polarization, polarization does not necessarily result from the malice of those involved.
Earlier today in National Harbor, Maryland at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, otherwise known as CPAC, Matt Schlapp sat down with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and White House Chief Strategist & Senior Counselor Steve Bannon.
Schlapp asked both men why the mainstream media seemed to be missing the allure of President Trump and why they “keep getting it wrong.”
Matt Schlapp who is the Chairman of the American Conservative Union, which is the oldest conservative lobbying organization in the United States, got the ball rolling by asking,
What is it they keep getting it wrong? And do you think it ever gets fixed? What does the media keep getting wrong about this Trump phenomenon and what’s happening out there in the country? And is there any hope that this changes?
Reince Priebus, who was previously the Chair of the Republican National Committee before the election, stated he thought things were going to change because of the work the President has been putting in and “the promises he has made to the American people.”
The White House Chief of Staff also explained exclaimed that the American people are continuously exposed to why Trump won’t win.
Here are the complete responses from Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon via this short C-SPAN video:
Exactly how will the U.S. conduct a fair and accurate investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and links with President Donald Trump’s campaign? U.S. congressional leaders are discussing options.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said that the Senate intelligence committee is best suited to investigate any concerns related to Russia.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a leading Republican voice on foreign policy, suggested Congress should establish a select, or special, committee of lawmakers to probe the matter.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, urged the creation of “a bipartisan, independent, outside commission” to investigate it.
Each of these alternatives may seem reasonable, but there are key differences between them. My research on more than 50 government investigations reveals that independent commissions, like the one Pelosi is advocating for, are more likely than regular or select congressional committees to achieve consensus about controversial events.
A congressional investigation into Russian activities and ties to Trump’s advisers is likely to be driven by partisan discord. An independent commission has greater potential to generate a widely agreed-upon understanding of Russian misbehavior.
At a time when Congress is sharply polarized along partisan lines, congressional investigations tend to become microcosms of that polarization. This is all the more true when an investigation involves an issue about which the president is vulnerable to political embarrassment or attack.
How a congressional probe might unfold
The Senate Intelligence Committee, responsible for overseeing intelligence matters, is characterized by more bipartisanship than most congressional committees. It possesses a highly professional staff that works together well across party lines. Its leaders – Republican Sen. Richard Burr and Democratic Sen. Mark Warner – have expressed a willingness to cooperate in investigating issues related to Russia.
But sharp divisions are likely to emerge between Democrats and Republicans on the committee when they face decisions such as whether to require Trump campaign advisers to testify under oath or demand that relevant records be turned over to the committee. The same goes for drawing conclusions about the motivations behind Russia’s interference, or the nature of ties between Russia and Trump’s aides. Such issues could run the risk of undermining the credibility of Trump’s election – thereby weakening the Republican Party’s hold on power.
This could result in the issuance of majority and minority committee reports. This happened with congressional reports in 2012 on the Central Intelligence Agency’s treatment of detainees and in 2016 on events related to the attack in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans. Such competing reports would fuel the perpetuation of distinct Republican and Democratic narratives about Russia’s role in the 2016 election.
The same outcome would likely result from an investigation by a select congressional committee, since select committees are also composed of lawmakers from both parties.
Investigations of the 9/11 attack
The congressional response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack illustrates the tendency of partisanship to infect investigations into events that could call into question the president’s standing.
In 2002, the House and Senate intelligence committees conducted a joint investigation of matters related to the attack. This probe, known as the joint inquiry, uncovered important information about government lapses that made it easier for Al-Qaida operatives to enter the United States and hijack four airplanes.
Yet the joint inquiry’s substantive findings were overshadowed by partisan disagreements over issues such as whether George W. Bush or Bill Clinton bore responsibility for the failure to prevent the attack. Some Republican members of the joint inquiry were also unwilling to support efforts to press the Bush White House for access to key witnesses and documents. The inquiry concluded with the release of a majority report and seven dissenting statements.
Dissatisfaction with this process led Congress and President Bush to approve a law that created the independent 9/11 Commission nine months after the joint inquiry had begun its work. The commission was characterized by strong bipartisanship. None of the 9/11 Commission’s members held public office during their tenure on the commission.
This distance from the partisan environment of Congress gave the commission’s five Republicans and five Democrats the freedom to find common ground. The result was a unanimous report that provided the definitive account of the Sept. 11 attack. However, the delay in creating the commission meant that this account and the commission’s recommendations were not published until 2004, years after the attack.
To be sure, some commissions also fall prey to polarization. I have found that about one-third of commissions created to investigate national security issues fail to produce unanimous reports.
But even staunch Democrats and Republicans typically place the national interest above partisan considerations when serving on a commission. They have an incentive to do so because their own reputation is at stake.
To create a commission, Congress would need to approve and Trump would need to sign legislation establishing the body. For now, this outcome appears unlikely. For this reason, some Democratic leaders in Congress are focusing instead on ensuring that the intelligence committee’s investigation is robust.
But if the intelligence committee proves unable to conduct a thorough and bipartisan investigation of Russian meddling and Trump’s campaign, pressure will build on America’s leaders to establish a more independent probe. Hanging in the balance could be whether the United States can forge consensus about what happened and how to prevent it from happening again.