Three weeks ago I told you about a tea party Republican member of Congress who thanked Attorney General Eric Holder for discussing their common interest in reducing excessive drug sentences, but noted that it would be impossible for his party to work with Holder. The congressman said their differences on a variety of matters, such as Holder’s support of same-sex marriage, would stand in the way of any cooperation – even on those occasions when he and the attorney general were on the same side.

I return to this subject now because the congressman in question, Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, has been designated by Speaker John Boehner to be the chair of the special committee to investigate the Benghazi tragedy.

So an extremely conservative Republican congressman, who has already made it clear that he cannot bring himself to cooperate with Obama administration officials on matters where they are in agreement because of his differences with them on a range of other issues, has now been named to chair the panel that is supposed to take an objective, non-partisan look at the Benghazi affair.

He will be in charge of an inquiry into the actions of a number of people with whom he disagrees as sharply as he disagrees with Attorney General Holder. If he cannot work with the attorney general to make a change in drug sentencing policy, which he acknowledges is desirable, how can Democratic House members be expected to trust his objectivity in assessing blame, for example, on Hillary Clinton, with whom he also disagrees on a range of issues?

It is Gowdy, not Democrats, who has made it clear that he has no interest in cooperating with people on any one set of concerns when he differs with them on others. Given his revulsion at the notion that someone would support the right of two women who are in love to marry, even after years of experience disproves claims once expressed that it would lead to social instability, why should anyone believe that this very strong feeling will be absent from the judgments he makes on others who hold that position.

Once again the contrast between the current Republican Party and previous congressional practice – on the part of both Democrats and Republicans – is striking. When Democrats created a special committee to investigate the Iran Contra affair in which Ronald Reagan allowed arms to be shipped to Iran and to the Nicaraguan contras, the latter in violation of congressional statutes, the chairman of the committee was Lee Hamilton.

Hamilton was a Democrat with a very well-deserved reputation for moderation, cross-party cooperation, and responsibility. His work as chairman reflected these qualities. The Republican Party also chose members with a reputation for civility and an ability to surmount partisanship. Neither party at that time nor in subsequent inquiries selected members of their ideological extremes to serve in such sensitive positions.

This is one more example of John Boehner abandoning the tradition of minimizing partisanship where it is inappropriate.

Many of us were already very skeptical of the need for such an inquiry. It should be remembered that the central issue in the Republican assault on the Obama administration’s handling of the Benghazi tragedy has very little to do with whether or not the murders could have been avoided, and is much more about the extent to which the administration’s description of these events, in the emotional and confused days afterward, were accurate.

The major argument the Republicans have been making is that the Obama administration officials, particularly U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, minimized the involvement of organized terror groups in the immediate aftermath of the events, and asserted that a reaction to an anti-Muslim video had been part of the reason for the assault.

Within a few days this confusion had been cleared up.

It was this focus on who in the administration said exactly what in those few emotionally charged days after the murder that Hillary Clinton was criticized when she said in a hearing, “What difference does it make now?”

Despite partisan Republican efforts to describe this as indifference to the murders of American personnel, she was explicitly referring to the effort to claim that the explanations that came afterwards were part of a conspiracy by the administration to minimize the threat of terrorism in the world. Her point was that none of this debate over what happened on the Sunday talk shows after the murder of these Americans would in any way alleviate that tragedy, nor was it relevant to what we should be doing in the future better to protect those who serve our country.

By picking a committee chair who has volunteered that his dislike of Obama administration policies on several issues is so deep and grips him so profoundly that he is unable to work with them even where agreement exists, Boehner has reinforced the view that this is no serious effort to improve our ability to protect our diplomatic personnel in the future, but rather a two-pronged partisan assault: on Democratic congressional candidates this year, and on Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: @BarneyFrank

— Special to the Telegram

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