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Political Typecasting on the Benghazi Panel

Cummings will lead the special panel. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Cummings will lead the special panel. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Updated, 3:20 p.m. | With public hearings still weeks away , it’s too soon to fairly predict whether a purely political show trial or a riveting investigatory breakthrough is in store from the House Select Committee on the Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi.  

But it’s not too early to look at the cast of characters who make up the panel’s membership for clues about what each side has in mind. (Check out our handy cheat sheet .)  

In some aspects, the makeup of the parties’ rosters is fundamentally different, in ways that make clear the Republicans are planning to be on offense from the outset while the Democrats are going to dig in to play defense. In other areas, the group is a reminder of the stark biographical differences between the two caucuses. But in a few ways, the committee’s characteristics are curiously different from the House as a whole.  

Most consequentially, while one out of every eight districts nationwide is at least somewhat politically competitive at the moment, no one on the select committee sits in one. All 12 are virtually certain to win re-election in November. That means none of them has any short-term political need to adopt the role of evenhanded inquisitor, because none needs to play it down the middle to appeal to the swing voters who could decide their fate.  

On the contrary, the Republicans have been given an opportunity to fortify their conservative bases by taking on the Obama administration as forcefully as possible, just as the Democrats have been afforded a way to appeal to their liberal bases by adopting a “Let’s move on, there’s nothing to see here” approach. All five Democrats are from reliably blue states in statewide and presidential elections, while five of the seven Republicans hail from states that are just as solidly red.  

While only two out of every five members of the House has a law degree, and only 5 percent have prosecutorial experience, three-quarters of the panel members are attorneys and two on each side have tried criminal cases. That would be Chairman Trey Gowdy, who developed his name in South Carolina politics during a decade as district attorney in Spartanburg, which followed six years as a federal prosecutor, and fellow Republican Susan W. Brooks, who was the United States attorney in Indianapolis for six years. On the Democratic side, Adam B. Schiff was a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles for seven years and Adam Smith was a municipal prosecutor in Seattle for three.  

While those résumés suggest the sure-to-be-televised proceedings will come off more like a criminal trial than a legislative hearing, it’s also true that half the committee members have experience in state legislatures, more in line with the makeup of the entire House. And hope that the Benghazi panel’s work might be characterized by equanimity lies in the fact that assignments went to 3 of the 10 members of the Ethics Committee, which cultivates a reputation as the least polarized panel on the Hill: Gowdy, Brooks and Democrat Linda T. Sánchez of California.  

Both teams may bring a bit more vigor to the task than their colleagues — the average age of the members of the Benghazi panel is 51, six years younger than the House average.  

While women make up just 18 percent of the House, four of the dozen committee members are female — fully one-third. That’s an oversample that makes political sense, because both parties are aware that projecting something close to gender balance is helpful in an election year. (But 30 percent of the Democrats are female, while only 8 percent of Republicans are women.)  

Other statistical outliers, though, seem to be just plain random: Two of the three House members named “Adam” got on the panel, for example. (Missing is Republican Kinzinger of Illinois.)  

In other ways the committee demographics offer a nearly exact replica of the two caucuses.  

All the Republicans are white, as is 98 percent of the House GOP conference. And four of the seven have been in office fewer than four years, also the case for almost half the conference.  

On the other side, the average tenure is six terms. That’s just about the average all the House Democrats; almost half of them have been in office since 2003 or earlier.  

Smith and Schiff are the panel’s only white men — an echo of the reality that the 113th Congress marks the first time white men are a minority in the House Democratic Caucus. The other three Democrats represent the changing caucus: Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland is black, Sánchez is Hispanic and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois is Asian-American. (Those groups make up 21 percent of the caucus, 12 percent and 5 percent, respectively.)  

Speaker John A. Boehner is insisting
the only assignment for his appointees is to uncover the facts about what happened before, during and after the assault on the Libyan diplomatic mission, during which Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died. Still, fewer than half his picks have any prior exposure to the matter through committee work. Gowdy and Ohio’s Jim Jordan are on the Oversight and Government Reform panel, while Georgia’s Lynn Westmoreland is on Intelligence, all three of which already have conducted inquiries. (No Republican member is from the other panel that probed the response to the attacks, Armed Services, although Alabama’s Martha Roby was on that committee when it investigated the attacks.)  

Despite Boehner’s stated charge, Republicans have made no secret about their principal political objective: exposing so many egregious State Department failings that Hillary Rodham Clinton is dissuaded (or effectively disqualified) from running for president.  

The desire to present a defense for Clinton is what motivated Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to overcome her own instinct, which was to label the proceedings a predetermined charade and boycott them in protest, and name a full slate of Democrats. All except Sánchez come from the committees that have already investigated the attack, the aim being to give the Democrats built-in credibility whenever they dismiss documents or testimony as nothing more than old news.  

To rebut the notion that her side is just as guilty of knee-jerk political posturing as the other, Pelosi can at least point to this: In 2008, not one of the panel’s Democrats endorsed Clinton’s presidential bid.  

Editor’s note: This post was updated to reflect that Roby served on Armed Services when it conducted its investigation.

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