The Donald Trump show will end its four-year Washington run next month, but the Adam Schiff and Devin Nunes production is due to live on.
The leaders of the House Intelligence Committee have been the faces of some of Capitol Hill’s most public partisan brawls of Trump’s presidency, including two investigations into Russian election interference and the third impeachment in U.S. history. Now they’re widely expected to be reappointed by House leaders to their respective roles in the 117th Congress.
Schiff, at least, expressed optimism about a return to above-the-fray bipartisan spirit during the upcoming Biden administration, telling POLITICO that “I think the overall climate will be more conducive to a sense of comity.” But on the GOP side, some current and former lawmakers think both parties could use a new standard-bearer on the panel to restore its one-time reputation as a sanctuary from Congress’ partisan warfare.
“We’ve got bad habits that accumulated over the last four years,” said retiring Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who led the panel’s first Russia investigation after Nunes, then the chair, recused himself. Conaway added: “On both sides.”
A spokesman for Nunes did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Democrats built up a long list of complaints about Nunes’ leadership of the panel during Trump’s first two years, including his efforts to absolve the president of collusion with Russian election interference and promote accusations of anti-Trump bias among federal law enforcement officials. Republicans argue that Democrats contributed to the panel’s rancorous atmosphere, citing what they consider a stream of leaks, Trump’s impeachment and Schiff’s regular presence on TV — though some acknowledge that GOP members kept stirring the pot, for example with their unanimous call for Schiff to resign as chair.
Neither Schiff or Nunes is expected to go anywhere, however, in a panel that will be more evenly divided next year thanks to Democratic losses in November’s elections. Both remain close allies of their party’s respective leaders and incredibly popular among their colleagues.
But Trump will be gone after Jan. 20. And Schiff said he hoped that would bring a change of tone for the committee, which will wrap up a months-long review of the U.S. clandestine community’s response and handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. The panel may also launch its own investigation of the SolarWinds hack, suspected to be the work of Russian intelligence, which has breached multiple federal agencies and an untold number of private companies.
“We just have too much important work to do,” Schiff said. He added, “All I can say is I’m going to make every effort and I hope it’ll be reciprocated.”
He added that he had a similar conversation with his GOP colleagues at the beginning of this Congress “that was not successful. But I intend to again and invite all of them to reset and see if we can get to ‘yes.’”
Intelligence panel or ‘political instrument’?
Current and former Republicans on the committee were less hopeful for a return to the panel’s reputation as a quiet, bipartisan protector of the nation’s most closely held secrets.
“The focus has to shift from partisan issues to true national security issues,” Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said about the committee’s future. But on the other hand, he said, “I don’t think Adam Schiff can go 15 minutes without attacking someone in the Capitol or in the Trump world.”
Former panel Chair Mike Rogers of Michigan, who retired from Congress in 2014, said he sees at least one way to restore civility: Replace both Schiff and Nunes.
“Both of them are leading fundraisers because of the notoriety they get in the very public political fights off of the committee, using the committee as that platform,” Rogers told POLITICO. “That is really destructive to good and proper oversight of the intelligence community, more than they will admit it, more than people will know.”
Dismissing both Schiff and Nunes would also “send a message that you don’t get a membership on the committee by using it as a political instrument,” Rogers said.
Intelligence is the only permanent committee in Congress whose members are appointed unilaterally by the Republican and Democratic leaders in the House, instead of being recommended by steering committees and voted on by their full caucus or conference. That means leadership retains tight control over the committee’s business and tend to appoint allies to it.
If leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) are serious about reversing the partisanship that’s wracked the panel during the Trump era, committee veterans say it will be most evident in next year’s appointments, including the choices of chair and ranking Republican.
Losses in the November elections have left Democrats with a razor-thin majority in the House. That means Republicans could gain a seat on the 21-person committee, whose appointments are usually announced last, after Pelosi and McCarthy finish negotiating the new ratio and all the other congressional panel rosters are finished.
McCarthy will have the chance to name at least three new Republicans to the panel, following the retirements of Conaway and Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, a former CIA officer, and the departure earlier this year of John Ratcliffe, now the director of national intelligence.
Compared with the changes coming for the GOP, the committee’s Democratic side will largely remain the same. Reps. Jim Himes of Connecticut and Terri Sewell of Alabama are term-limited off the committee but are expected to seek waivers to remain on the panel. Only Rep. Denny Heck of Washington state is retiring.
Despite the four years of bickering, Intelligence “is the most coveted committee on our side,” said Conaway, adding that McCarthy “will have more than enough rock-solid people to put in these slots, to take up the reins. … He’ll have to disappoint some really good, qualified people.”
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), who is the favorite to get the top GOP slot if Nunes somehow doesn’t, noted that the committee has had a reputation for attracting lawmakers who are workhorses and don’t mind that much of the panel’s work takes place behind closed doors.
“If you’re on HPSCI, it should be the most important committee you sit on,” said Stewart, who also serves on the Appropriations and Budget panels. “Sometimes you have to choose. And when I have to choose, I always have to choose Intel and I would hope other members would make it their priority too, not something they do casually.”
Recent developments on Capitol Hill don’t exactly bode well for a restoring an atmosphere of cooperation any time soon.
Earlier this year the GOP unofficially boycotted the panel’s proceedings for months at the start of the pandemic over what they said were security concerns, though Democrats argued it was partisan politics.
Objections by Nunes almost scuttled the passage of an annual intelligence authorization bill — which passed out of committee in a rare, party-line vote — even though Schiff and the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee had agreed to it. Nunes had objected to moving forward on the measure because he believed that provisions on election security and protecting whistleblowers and inspectors general amounted to partisan attacks on the White House.
A compromise version of the proposal, which authorizes billions of dollars in spending and provides policy guardrails to the country’s 17 intelligence agencies, was eventually hitched to the $2.3 trillion omnibus spending bill and Covid-19 relief package that the House and Senate passed on Monday — but not before the provisions Nunes objected to were jettisoned.
“Regrettably” those provisions were cut from the compromise bill, Schiff said in a statement.
“We will continue to press for those necessary reforms, and others, in the next Congress through the [Intelligence Authorization Act] and other legislative vehicles,” the California Democrat said.
Meanwhile, some Republican members openly skewered Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and called for Pelosi to remove him from the committee after an Axios report accused him of having had dealings with an alleged Chinese spy. But Pelosi has stood by Swallwell, who has said he broke off contact with the woman after getting an alert from the FBI in 2015.
“I’m not taking anything personally,” Swalwell said when asked about GOP calls for him to step down from the panel.
“I’m going into the next Congress putting aside what’s happened in the past and wanting to try and get some of the friendships back that I had across the aisle before Donald Trump became president,” he added. “All you can do is try.”
‘Find something that you can do with Devin’
Rogers suggested that one way to restore comity post-Trump would be to bring back a practice employed during his time helming the panel: Have Republican and Democratic staff brief members together, because “sometimes the staff fighting is as bad as anything that you’ll see from the members.” As a result of the joint briefings, he said, “people started realizing we’re on the same page for the same mission.”
Still, Rogers remains dubious that Schiff and Nunes can lead the panel back from the brink of dysfunction.
“The fact that they are nationally known for going after Trump, or supporting Trump, that is an aphrodisiac that’s hard to get over,” he told POLITICO.
For some members, it’s too late.
When he announced his retirement last year, Heck said the “countless hours I have spent in the investigation of Russian election interference and the impeachment inquiry have rendered my soul weary” — and the memories of the committee’s heated clashes may not disappear soon.
Heck said that “our best opportunity for a reset” would have been to give Nunes the top GOP spot on the Ways and Means Committee, which the California Republican has long coveted. But that slot will remain with Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), McCarthy announced earlier this month.
“If I had 30 seconds with Kevin, and I thought he listened to me, I’d say: Find something that you can do with Devin,” Heck said. But, he added, “That’s not going to happen.”