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How Ken Starr Helped Reshape Congress—for the worse?

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Over the past 20 years, Congress, especially when controlled by the GOP, has transformed from a legislative body to an investigative body.

One of the people who played a pivotal role in institutionalizing the culture of endless investigations was Kenneth Starr, who died Tuesday at the age of 76 from complications following surgery. Starr was a longtime Republican official, judge and, in his later years, university president and conservative commentator. However, he will be most remembered for his role as an independent counsel during President Bill Clinton’s administration. Starr served in that capacity from 1994-99.

Of course, since Congress has always been a check on the executive, oversight is part of its mission. But in recent years, research has become a way of limiting executive power by setting the agenda for the president.

Of course, since Congress has always been a check on the executive, oversight is part of its mission. But in recent years, research has become a way of limiting executive power by setting the agenda for the president. When the president and a government have to respond to a series of investigations, they are more likely to divert their attention from other governance issues.

The relevance and legitimacy of these studies vary and are often seen through biased lenses. For example, Democrats generally seen the first accusation case against Donald Trump considered legitimate while investigation into Hillary Clinton following the tragedy in Benghazi as a politically motivated waste of time. Republicans, however, viewed those events in exactly the opposite way.

Starr was not the first independent counsel charged with investigating a presidential scandal. Among his notable predecessors was Archibald Cox, Watergate’s Independent Adviser. About 15 years later, Lawrence Walsh served as special counsel during the Ronald Reagan administration, mainly focused on the Iran-Contra scandal.

What made Starr unusual was that his portfolio was so broad. His investigation began in 1994 and probed Bill and Hillary Clinton’s investment in real estate in Arkansas, which eventually known as Whitewater and provided no evidence of wrongdoing by the Clintons. That investigation led to addressing questions far from favoritism, corruption or real estate in Arkansas.

The issue that led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 was not a matter of financial corruption. Instead, Starr turned his attention to Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and the extent to which Clinton was honest when he testified about it. An investigation into real estate transactions shifted to the president’s infidelity, not because the two were linked, but because Starr interpreted his mandate extremely broadly.

That was a turning point in the use of congressional surveys. Republicans in Congress, particularly after Clinton’s re-election in 1996, used an investigation to try to rule a popular president. But that plan failed. When the Republicans lost seats in the House and failed to win Senate seats in the 1998 midterm elections, proving that the strong economy of the 1990s was more important to voters than anything Starr and the GOP could find on the Clintons.

Nevertheless, the approach remained a tool Republicans continued to use, generating media and political support rather than charges or impeachment.

We saw it again during the Obama administration, which, according to most measureswas one of the most ethical in modern history. Still, the Republican-led Congress began in 2011, after the GOP won control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections. the administration investigated for allegedly using the IRS for political purposes, its support of the energy company Solyndra, and a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive program that sought to track down illegal arms sales near the southern border. These were better understood as policy missteps than presidential scandals, but that was the framework the GOP found more effective.

The Obama administration’s most well-known and time-consuming investigation was around Benghazi. It also targeted 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State in 2012 when the… attacks on benghazi occurred. Benghazi was investigated by five standing committees and one select committee. The Investigation Select Committee lasted over two years and cost nearly $8 million. The report found that the Obama administration had been incompetent, but it did not lead to charges. For years, the GOP-led Congress focused on investigations rather than trying to pass legislation or govern.

There are certainly times when investigations are appropriate, but problems arise when political parties use them not as a tool to get information from the administration, but simply to consume the energy and time of key administrative staff.

If, as it seems likely, Republicans win back the House in November, they have expressed their willingness to… start investigating on all of Nancy Pelosi’s Role in the Attempted Rebellion of January 6, 2021 – yes, you read that right – to the withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan and of course Hunter Biden’s laptop. Many Republicans in Congress mistakenly believe that Pelosi had some control over getting the police to the Capitol when Trump supporters violated it. These events are all better understood as political differences or, in the case of the Capitol Police, conservative fantasy rather than scandals worth investigating. They would completely sidetrack the administration of President Joe Biden while keeping the GOP base mobilized.

There are certainly times when investigations are appropriate, but problems arise when political parties use them not as a tool to get information from the administration, but simply to consume the energy and time of key administrative staff. The question of which investigations are worthwhile and which are not is subjective, but Congress has lost its way as investigations replace laws that help people in the U.S.

The right — both in office and in the media — likes to call the January 6 inquiry a political witch hunt. However, a basic understanding of reality suggests that the Capitol attack is worth investigating as Biden is accused of the mistreatment of the withdrawal from Afghanistan is absurd. Congressional Republicans have already passed articles of impeachment against Biden, but are fueling a lengthy investigation into poorly executed policies that don’t come close to impeachment.

If House Republicans dominate the news in 2023 by investigating what Pelosi said to the Capitol police or by re-challenging the 2020 election and election fraud investigation that has turned out to be unfounded, we must remember the role that Starr played in it. He helped create a template that uses research not as a way to get to the bottom of a scandal, but to weaken, distract, and harass a presidential government. That’s a big part of the legacy he left behind.

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