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How To Host A Congressional Hearing That Actually, Like, Does Something

There are certain moments in congressional history that have lived on even longer than the octogenarians who stalk the halls of Capitol Hill. They are the scenes that feel torn from the pages of a political drama: Sen. Howard Baker Jr. repeatedly asking during the Watergate hearings, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” Army lawyer Joseph Welch excoriating Sen. Joseph McCarthy with a rhetorical question during the Army-McCarthy hearings: “Have you no sense of decency?” A panel of tobacco executives testifying one by one before Congress, incredulously, that nicotine is not addictive. 

Under the right circumstances, a congressional hearing can be a satisfying resolution to a tense political conflict, one that allows society to move forward. Doesn’t that sound nice right about now?

The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol is hoping its hearings will be remembered in the same light. On Thursday, the committee will begin a run of public hearings to reveal what its investigation has uncovered and provide guidance on how to avoid a similar assault in the future. Rep. Jamie Raskin has promised the hearings will “blow the roof off the House,” and in a statement to FiveThirtyEight, Rep. Adam Schiff said, “I wouldn’t expect these hearings to look like a typical congressional hearing.” 

But surely both of these majority committee members know how difficult it will be to change the public’s mind about what happened on Jan. 6, 2021. Polling shows many Americans (especially Republicans) think too much attention has been paid to the attacks and say they are ready to “move on.” Furthermore, people who participated in the riot or support the “Big Lie,” the baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen, have already secured nominations across the country in primary elections. 

So, what makes for a memorable hearing? Well, taking place in the ’70s and ’80s is one ingredient. That was the golden age of congressional hearings, when the country was less polarized and news consumption more homogeneous. But maybe there’s still something to learn from those hearings of yesteryear — they may offer some hints as to how the Jan. 6 committee can recapture the magic.

New information

In July 1973, two months into the Senate Watergate hearings, a former White House assistant named Alexander Butterfield made a startling revelation: There were recording devices in the West Wing. This disclosure not only shocked the public but also marked the beginning of the end for then-President Richard Nixon’s administration. While reporting from The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein revealed many details of the Watergate scandal, it wasn’t until the hearings — where individuals with firsthand knowledge were obliged to testify — that Nixon’s involvement became undeniable. 

Excavating new information is what hearings are designed to do, and it can make them more appealing to the public, and more likely to effect change, according to Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Alexander Butterfield Testifying
Alexander Butterfield, a former deputy assistant to President Richard Nixon, brought a blockbuster revelation to the Watergate Senate hearings in 1973.

Bettman / Getty Images

In fact, we can see that impact in polling conducted before and during the Watergate hearings. At the start of these televised hearings in May 1973, the Watergate scandal had already knocked Nixon’s approval rating down 20 percentage points in four months to 48 percent, and by early August, it had dropped to 31 percent, according to Gallup polling cited by the Pew Research Center. Likewise, prior to the hearings, 31 percent of Americans said they believed Watergate was a serious matter and not just politics, but by August, that number had climbed to a 53 percent majority. 

Committee members also elicit new information by asking fact-finding questions, not by using these public hearings simply as a stage from which to speechify. But this is Congress — speechifying is an inevitability. Especially these days. Ju Yeon Park, a political scientist at the University of Essex who studies the communication style of American legislators, has found that grandstanding — which she defines as using “hearings as opportunities to send political messages by taking positions on policy issues or framing the image of a party or the administration” — has grown more common in congressional hearings in recent years. She also has forthcoming research that shows more time spent grandstanding is correlated with better performance in the following election (which may, uh, help explain this behavior). 

It’s tough to know, then, whether the Jan. 6 hearings will reveal new information or simply provide a platform for partisan grandstanding ahead of the midterms. There are still many unresolved questions about what happened in the days leading up to and on the day of the attack, and perhaps the hearings will be able to answer them.  

Insider witnesses

Another common component of history-making hearings is an insider witness. Congress has unique subpoena powers that can compel individuals to testify who may not otherwise have volunteered to do so. This has resulted in key moments like Butterfield’s revelation in 1973 or the 1987 testimony of former National Security aide Lt. Col. Oliver North, when he took the fall for the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal during President Ronald Reagan’s administration. It has also facilitated moments when new information came to light and made for less partisan hearings, according to Jonathan Lewallen, a political scientist at the University of Tampa and the author of “Committees and the Decline of Lawmaking in Congress.”

Those witnesses can make a hearing feel like more than just one long session of ax grinding — and there’s been more of that lately, too. In recent years, Congress has held fewer hearings and is hearing from fewer witnesses, and according to research from Lewallen published in 2015, those witnesses are presenting a narrower range of views. Lewallen and his colleagues found that, over the past 40 years, a greater share of congressional hearings are positional (essentially arguing only one side of an issue) rather than exploratory (when all sides of an issue are considered). In 1977-1978, only 19 percent of the hearings held were positional, but in 2007-2008, 30 percent were. Lewallen said that is due partly to having fewer witnesses and over-relying on government appointees, who are less likely to push against the party line.

Oliver North at the Iran-Contra Hearings
Lt. Col. Oliver North, seen here in 1987 at the Iran-Contra hearings, tried to cover up an arms-for-hostages deal during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Wally McNamee / Corbis via Getty Images

Getting a range of voices and insider perspectives in the Jan. 6 hearings may prove challenging as well. Republican figures who were heavily involved with then-President Donald Trump’s actions on the day of the Capitol attack have refused to testify to the committee, and as a result, at least two have been charged with contempt of Congress. Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Trump’s onetime lawyer Rudy Giuliani, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and a handful of GOP members of Congress have all refused to testify. In May, the committee took the unprecedented step of actually subpoenaing their Republican colleagues to testify.

The committee has subpoenaed dozens of witnesses, many of whom were either involved in planning the Trump rally that preceded the attack or helped him with his baseless campaign to overturn the 2020 election results, which fueled the attack. So, even if big names aren’t cooperating, we may hear some illuminating testimony. The committee also benefits from the mountain of media created on the day of the attack, including videos and photos from the attackers themselves. In his statement, Schiff said the committee “will present the evidence we have gathered through both live testimony and a variety of media, so as to be both highly engaging and deeply informative.”

Bipartisanship

That moment when Butterfield acknowledged the existence of recording devices in the West Wing was not only a revelation for the American public but also a carefully orchestrated moment of bipartisanship. Butterfield had already revealed the taping system in a closed-door interview with committee staff three days before his public testimony. Since a Republican lawyer had asked the question that elicited Butterfield’s admission in the background interview, the committee agreed it was only fair to let a Republican ask the question on the public record, and so it was decided that the committee’s minority counsel, Fred Thompson (who was later elected to the Senate, in 1994) would be the one to do so. 

Bipartisanship also played a key role in many famous hearings in U.S. history, according to Troy. “In the Army-McCarthy hearings, Eisenhower was working behind the scenes to try to make McCarthy look bad. So the Republicans were working with the Democrats to make it come out in a certain way. Obviously in the Watergate hearings, the Republicans were brought in for the big questions,” Troy said. “Cooperation brings better results — and results that the American people can embrace.”

Sen. Fred D. Thompson and Sen. Howard Baker during the Watergate hearings
Fred Thompson, the minority counsel during the Watergate Senate hearings, was key to lending the proceedings an air of bipartisanship.

AP Photo

Hyperpartisan hearings appeal only to one side of the electorate and can make the hearing process less effective, according to Jim Townsend, the director of Wayne State University Law School’s Levin Center, which promotes bipartisan legislative oversight. One example, he noted, was a congressional hearing after the Civil War to investigate an emerging terrorist organization in the South: the Ku Klux Klan. While the hearings themselves were bipartisan, the Democrats rejected the findings laid out in the majority report and issued a minority report refuting all the facts found in the hearings, Townsend said. As a result, the hearings weren’t able to sway many minds.

“Democrats constructed an alternative narrative. I mean, frankly, their own alternative facts that denied the existence of the KKK and put the blame on Northern so-called agitators and African Americans,” Townsend said. “We’ve been here before: an incredibly divided country where basic facts about whether terrorism, violent aggression against some people in our country was being explained in two very different ways.” 

It’s well documented at this point that American politics have become increasingly polarized over the past few decades. This affects not only how American voters view one another but also how much they trust elected officials who don’t belong to the political party they identify with. When asked whether each major political party could be described “very” or “somewhat” well as “govern[ing] in an honest and ethical way,” Americans rarely agreed when it came to the opposing party, according to a January survey from Pew. Just 17 percent of Democrats said the Republican Party governed honestly and ethically, and 13 percent of Republicans said the same about the Democratic Party. Trust in the government overall has been declining for decades as well, and partisans typically trust the government less when the opposing party is in power, according to Pew. And while Americans’ positive feelings toward their own party have remained steady since the ’70s, their positive feelings about the opposing party have been falling — the gulf is only getting wider.

All of these findings underscore the importance of bipartisanship when trying to convene an effective hearing. To persuade partisans to pay attention and care about the information being presented, it has to come from their side of the aisle. “If one side — Republicans — are saying this is a partisan sideshow, then Republicans in the electorate are going to say this is a partisan sideshow,” said Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has been tracking the increasingly chilly feelings between partisans.

In this respect, the Jan. 6 hearings may have already failed before they’ve even begun. Although the committee is technically bipartisan, a majority of the members are Democrats. And including Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger — two of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after Jan. 6 — hasn’t inspired a ton of faith among Republicans: In a March 31-April 4 poll from Global Strategy Group/GBAO, 60 percent of Republicans said they agreed with a statement calling the Jan. 6 committee’s investigation “a partisan witch hunt.” Not to mention that Republicans in Congress have opposed the committee from the very beginning: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had GOP members block an independent commission to investigate the attack. Then, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blocked two Republicans from joining the commission, McCarthy had fellow Republicans boycott the commission and what little good will was left likely evaporated. The upcoming hearings will likely elicit a similar response. In April, McCarthy told NBC: “This is nothing but a political show.”

Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.

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