A reminder of what Congress can do
Watching the hearings held by the Jan. 6 committee as it delves into the events at the Capitol last year and what lay behind them, I’ve been struck by what you might think of as the “meta-coverage.”
It’s been fascinating to see.
Most news stories, of course, have focused on the alarming revelations uncovered by the committee – in essence, the lengths to which a sitting president and his allies went in trying to short-circuit the clearly expressed will of the American people.
But some coverage has instead focused on how the select committee has gone about its work: the technology it’s using and its careful structuring of the hearings to create a clear narrative of the events leading up to and following the attack on the Capitol.
As Axios’ Mike Allen put it recently, “The committee ditched the flabby traditional format and has methodically built a taut, colorful narrative with a prosecutor’s precision and a cinematographer’s flair.” He and others cite the influence of former ABC News president James Goldston, who, as Allen writes, “has been producing each hearing as if it were a ‘20/20’ episode,” as well as the committee’s discipline in building an easy-to-grasp accretion of facts and testimony.
There is much about this that’s new: the use of relevant footage, maps, and reconstructions that are available instantly when needed; interweaving videotaped and in-person testimony to deepen the narrative; production values that make the hearings seem up-to-the-minute, rather than a throwback to an earlier era. But there is also much about this that is, in fact, time-tested congressional process.
What the hearings are doing is what congressional committees at their best have always done: focus on a complicated topic, present the facts about it to the American people, leave us all better informed than we were before, and possibly have an impact on how government operates. It’s not hard to come up with a list of high-profile congressional hearings that have had this kind of effect, from the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings to the Watergate hearings in 1973 to the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings and the 2019 hearings on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections. But I would argue that even low-profile committee work—hearings aimed at checking in on the operations of the executive branch or how well policy initiatives have performed—have held similar value for our democracy.
I’ve always believed that part of the job of a politician is to educate the public—about the facts and about their meaning for the US and for public policy. It is incredibly difficult these days for voters to sort out information—we’re all bombarded with facts, opinion, information and misinformation and even disinformation. But if, as a country, we’re to build consensus based on the real world, then you have to start with the facts. Ultimately, a democratic society depends on the ability of citizens to form good judgments based on the realities facing us; if they don’t, the country suffers.
The same, of course, goes for policy-makers. In that case, the country depends not just on their ability to ground their work in the facts, but to explore an issue and then deliberate on what to do about it. The deliberative process—which in Congress was once rooted in the work of committees—produces better law: It forces members of Congress to understand an issue, accommodate different interests, and ultimately knock out bad ideas and bad proposals in favor of initiatives that can command a consensus. Overall, as congressional power has consolidated in the hands of a few strong leaders, committees have lost that kind of influence; Congress generally holds far fewer hearings than it did a few decades ago.
So I take the Jan. 6 committee’s innovations as a good sign. It has updated the mechanics of the process to create a compelling lesson in the value of thorough research and leveling plainly with the American people about what the facts show. In short, it has demonstrated what Congress is capable of achieving. Here’s hoping other committees are taking note.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.