During yesterday's House debate on whether to hold Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress, Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney highlighted an unexpected new controversy about one of her Republican colleagues, Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana. As The Hill reported:
Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ill.) sent numerous letters claiming to be the ranking member of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, the committee's Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) revealed Thursday.
Cheney, an actual member of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, entered into the record this written correspondence in which Banks identifies himself as the "ranking member" of the panel in official correspondence to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. (For those unfamiliar with the phrasing, a "ranking member" is the top member from the minority party on a committee.)
The problem, of course, is that Banks isn't the ranking member on the Jan. 6 committee. In fact, he's not on the committee at all.
Nevertheless, the Hoosier congressman asked the Interior secretary to provide him with all of the information the cabinet agency is providing to the actual committee members. "Pursuant to the rules of the House of Representatives, the minority party retains rights to the same information that is provided to the majority party," Banks wrote.
The Daily Beast's piece added, "The group of federal agencies that Banks has contacted includes the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security — among others. And one of those sources said that recipients also included social media companies, like Facebook, which had also been targets of extensive evidence requests."
I've been reporting on Congress for a long while, and I honestly can't think of another instance in which a member effectively pretended — in official, written correspondence — to be a member of a committee he or she was not a part of.
Given the context, some history is probably in order.
The original plan was for an independent commission along the lines of the 9/11 Commission. Before it could be created, congressional Republicans made a series of demands; Democrats accepted the GOP's terms; and Republicans killed the idea anyway.
At that point, Congress moved to Plan B: The House created a bipartisan, special select committee to investigate the insurrectionist attack. As part of the process, GOP leaders were invited to recommend a slate of House Republicans to serve on the panel, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had the final call on whether or not they qualified.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy picked five members, including tapping Banks to serve as the ranking member. Pelosi rejected two of the five — including Banks, who not only refused to vote to certify his own country's election results, but who seemed to disqualify himself with rhetoric indicating he had no intention of taking the investigatory process seriously.
At that point, GOP leaders announced a boycott of the committee. Pelosi nevertheless found two House Republicans — Cheney and Illinois' Adam Kinzinger — willing to serve on the bipartisan panel. Cheney ultimately became the committee's co-chair.
But as Banks' correspondence made clear, this left the GOP leadership at a disadvantage: By refusing to even acknowledge the legitimacy of the committee and its probe, McCarthy & Co. have no way of knowing what kind of information the investigation is uncovering. The minority could theoretically ask Cheney and Kinzinger, but the duo doesn't have much use for McCarthy these days.
And as a consequence, Banks apparently feels the need to effectively play make-believe — not because he wants to be a productive member of the committee he's boycotting, but because Republicans don't like being in the dark.
Chances are, relevant government departments will not comply with Banks' request for information. But the fact that he's even trying to present himself as the "ranking member" of a committee he's not on is an extraordinary development.