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 riven 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.
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.