As Congress gears up to investigate Russia’s reported interference in American elections, precisely what form that inquiry will take is up for debate. But even at this early stage, one thing is clear: Whether it is done by the Intelligence Committees, a joint or select committee, or some other congressionally created framework, a vital goal of any such investigation must be bipartisanship. It’s not simply that an investigation must be conducted—from start to finish—in a bipartisan manner; it’s that history confirms that an investigation will be of value only if the American public perceives it as bipartisan. Indeed, some of the most important investigations Congress has ever conducted—the hearings on Watergate, Iran-Contra and the joint inquiry into the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—made a real difference precisely because their bipartisan nature enabled them to get at the truth and gain the trust of the American people. Unfortunately, such bipartisanship will now pose a challenge.
Recent sessions of Congress have seen some investigations conducted in a partisan fashion, eroding past norms and producing results that have been poorly received and often criticized as a waste of taxpayer dollars. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
For 30 years, we served together on the Senate Armed Service Committee, including as its chairman and ranking member. In those leadership roles, we always made bipartisanship an explicit goal of our investigations. One noteworthy example is the Senate Armed Services Committee’s 2008 inquiry into the military’s treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. During the investigation, the majority and minority staffs worked together, reviewing more than 200,000 pages of documents and jointly conducting dozens of interviews. The end result was a report adopted by the committee and released to the public. The long record of the Armed Services Committee has demonstrated time and again that bipartisan investigations are both achievable and effective.