Goodlatte and Gowdy Stick to the Low Road on Their Way Out

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Retiring congressmen can feel liberated, no longer pressured by their peers or politics back home. They can be candid, and depart on a high road.

Unfortunately two of the most high-profile House Republican retirees, Judiciary Committee chair Bob Goodlatte and Oversight Committee chair Trey Gowdy, have chosen the low road. With their party about to lose power in the House, they are making last-gasp inquisitions, subpoenaing former FBI Director James Comey and Obama Attorney General Loretta Lynch for a closed-door session this week.

The purpose yet again is to try to find dirt on Hillary Clinton and advance the nutty case that Donald Trump might have been framed by the FBI, that bastion of left-wingers.

Although he initially filed suit to prevent a closed door hearing, Comey over the weekend agreed to testify in a private session later this week, with the understanding a transcript would be released within 24 hours and he would be free to talk about the session. Those conditions seek to counter the Republicans’ well-honed practice of selectively leaking information about private sessions.

Other retiring Republican members of Congress are leaving Congress on a better note.

Senator Jeff Flake has been a portrait of candor and political integrity after bowing out of what probably was an unwinnable re-election race in Arizona. Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, shocked at Trump's indifference to the Saudi leadership-ordered murder of a Washington Post columnist, accused the White House of acting like a "public relations firm" for the Saudi crown prince. Seven-term Pennsylvania Representative Charlie Dent, who resigned from Congress last spring, has talked openly about the dysfunction of the House Republican caucus.

In contrast, Goodlatte from Virginia and South Carolina's Gowdy are only interested in scoring some cheap political points on the way out.

Four decades ago, Goodlatte started as a staffer to Republican Representative Caldwell Butler, a thoughtful and principled conservative from  Virginia. Butler was one of seven Judiciary Committee Republicans who voted to impeach Richard Nixon in 1974.

To paraphrase an old political saying, I covered Caldwell Butler, I interviewed Caldwell Butler, and Bob Goodlatte is no Caldwell Butler.

Goodlatte has occasionally crafted bipartisan accords, usually on rather minor matters. But in the past two years his focus has been to divert attention from Donald Trump's transgressions by recycling Clinton inquiries.

"If you just watch this committee, you'd think Hillary Clinton won the last election," says California's Eric Swalwell, a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. "The Comey subpoena is just another of these stunts."

Goodlatte began this Congress trying to gut the ethics rules. A column in his hometown Roanoke paper asked last week if "Goodlatte's 13th (and last) term is his worse one yet," and answered by noting he started "by trying to hamstring a congressional watchdog" and is departing "by doing the bidding of the Trump White House." Goodlatte's son, a former Facebook designer and now a San Francisco investor, expressed outrage at his father's behavior.

Gowdy was elected in 2010, having beaten the incumbent Republican, Bob Inglis, in the primary. His insurgent campaign foreshadowed his congressional style: tough, shrewd and willing to put partisanship ahead of principles. 

He assailed Inglis who proposed a free-market solution to the climate-change crisis. At a Landrum, S.C., forum, Gowdy cleverly embraced the climate-change deniers: "Global warning has not been proven to the satisfaction of the constituents I seek to serve."

With a certain Southern charm combined with his tough-guy prosecutor role, he can sound reasonable while being disingenuous. In a CBS "Face the Nation" interview last weekend, he defended the Comey subpoena to testify behind closed doors by claiming the former FBI director "has never conducted an interview in public."

Comey testified for almost three hours last year in a televised Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, among others.

In addition to the Comey fiasco, Gowdy, in his final week, has scheduled hearings on the Clinton Foundation and Planned Parenthood.

In his two years as chairman during the Trump presidency, he has issued only one subpoena to a relatively minor Trump official, And while publicly insisting he was making demands of the White House, he turns into a lap dog when they don't cooperate.

Contrast that passivity with his behavior as chairman of a special panel investigating the tragedy when four Americans were killed in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. It was a farce, with Gowdy and his colleagues looking like fools in an all-day grilling of Hillary Clinton. It cost taxpayers $7 million, but it did accomplish something. As House majority leader Kevin McCarthy noted, the purpose was to drive up Clinton's negatives; it was a political witch hunt.

There may be one good outcome from the travesties of Goodlatte and Gowdy. Maybe next year new Democratic committee chairs like Jerrold Nadler and Maxine Waters will realize how these kind of performances not only tarred the institution, but also their own party.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.

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