More than four months after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the House of Representatives voted Wednesday—over much Republican opposition—to approve legislation that would create an independent commission to investigate what happened that day.
Per the text of the bill, the “National Commission to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol Complex Act,” the commission would be made up of 10 members, five of whom would be appointed by the Democratic House and Senate majority leaders and five by their Republican counterparts. This group would be required to produce a report on “facts and circumstances of the January 6th attack on the Capitol as well as the influencing factors that may have provoked the attack on our democracy” by the end of 2021.
In order to become law, the commission bill still needs to be passed by the Senate, where it faces a challenge from the GOP.
“There has been a growing consensus that the January 6th attack is of a complexity and national significance that what we need an independent commission to investigate,” Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS) said in a statement about the deal he reached with John Katko (R-NY), the committee’s ranking Republican. “Inaction—or just moving on—is simply not an option. The creation of this commission is our way of taking responsibility for protecting the U.S. Capitol.”
While it took a few months for this deal to be reached, the idea is unlikely to be a surprise. Such commissions are an American tradition.
Whether created by an act of Congress or via an order from the President, they have been created to bring independent experts together on complicated policy issues—like the future of Social Security or artificial intelligence—or, after a crisis, to investigate what how to avoid repeating the same mistakes. In terms of congressional commissions in particular, there have been more than 150 since 1989, according to the Congressional Research Service. These commissions exist for a certain period of time, report to Congress in an advisory capacity and are appointed partly or entirely by its members.
“Every modern president has used commissions,” says Jordan Tama, political scientist and author of Terrorism and National Security Reform: How Commissions Can Drive Change During Crises, who jokes that he “might have the world’s largest collection of commission reports outside the Library of Congress.”
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Christopher Kirchhoff, a Senior Fellow at Schmidt Futures who wrote his doctoral dissertation on commissions, points out that such commissions can be traced all the way back to 15th century Britain, and they were one of the traditions that the Founding Fathers of the United States incorporated into their new system of government. George Washington appointed a commission to investigate the Pennsylvania Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.
Presidents started to create commissions more frequently at the turn of the 20th century during the Progressive era, according to Tama. Teddy Roosevelt created commissions to study issues related to the regulation of the economy, the use of public lands and unsafe meatpacking industry conditions. He also created a National Monetary Commission, one the first big efforts to study monetary policy, and which came up with an idea for what’s now the Federal Reserve System.
In the postwar era, Presidents used commissions to tackle “vexing political issues,” appointing an average of one and a half presidential commissions every year between 1945 and 1955, according to Steven M. Gillon’s Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism. “As the burdens on the presidency increased in postwar America, commissions became a convenient way for presidents to fill the gap between what they could deliver and what was expected of them,” he writes. “The popularity of presidential commissions also reflected the postwar fascination with experts and the belief that social scientists could offer objective solutions to complicated social problems.”
For example, on July 27, 1967, in the hopes of understanding what was causing the uprisings that had become a fixture in American cities like Detroit and Newark, President Lyndon B. Johnson created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (NACCD)—better known as the Kerner Commission, after its chair, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner. However, realizing that the commission wasn’t just going to endorse his policies, LBJ tried to cut off the commission’s funding so that it wouldn’t publish results that were embarrassing at a time when he was considering running for re-election, but his efforts were unsuccessful. After commissioners paid visits to chronically underfunded predominantly African-American neighborhoods, the 1968 report blamed “white society” for creating, maintaining and condoning ghettos, famously concluding, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Even today, America has yet to fulfill the commission’s ambitious recommendations.
In the last half century, Congress has become more active in creating commissions than Presidents have been, which Tama believes is due to Congressional committee staffs being overworked and to polarization. “It’s harder for Congress to generate consensus about legislation itself and maybe they’ll be able to have more consensus on legislation once commission come back to them,” he says. “Generally, it’s a lot easier to pass legislation creating a commission than it is to pass kind of substantive policy legislation, and so they might create a commission with the goal of using that commission to make the case for what they’re pushing or put more pressure on the other party.”
Tama studied 55 independent commissions on national security from 1981 to 2009 and found that commissions formed after a crisis had a higher percentage of their key recommendations adopted than commissions formed to study a policy issue (56% versus 31%). For example, NASA implemented several of the recommendations for safety protocols made by the commissions that formed after the 2003 space shuttle Columbia accident. He also found that two-thirds of commissions he studied issued unanimous reports, suggesting commissions can be models of bipartisanship
Perhaps the most famous recent example is the 9/11 Commission, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. It was chaired by a bipartisan group of five Democrats and five Republican and had a staff of 80 people, who carried out a review of 2.5 million documents and more than 1,200 interviews. Several of its key recommendations, like the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center, were adopted, and the 567-page final report published on July 22, 2004, was an instant bestseller.
“They can be really powerful vehicles for establishing facts when there’s a lot of confusion and uncertainty, wrestling with complexity in ways that’s a little bit easier to do on a commission than sometimes in some of the other policy vehicles we have,” says Kirchhoff. “The 9/11 Commission had multiple investigative teams spending hundreds of hours diving into all facets of what happened that day. And I think that’s a really important lesson. It’s going to take a lot of expertise and time to simply establish the facts. And establishing the facts is a really powerful thing.”