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The Jan. 6 committee is modeling a better way to conduct hearings

The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol has developed a novel format that can benefit future congressional investigations involving complex matters with high visibility and strong political interests. Unlike past investigations and hearings where information was presented largely through the questioning of witnesses in limited periods of time (often five minutes) by different committee members with widely varying interests, the Jan. 6 committee has presented the fruits of its investigation in a coherent, organized manner through meaningful visuals and videos; clear, uninterrupted questioning; and penetrating hearing summaries via closing statements. It’s a welcome lesson.  

Too often, particularly in the past decade, the public has seen congressional hearings that either made little sense or resembled political food fights. With members often haranguing witnesses and denouncing their own colleagues, these proceedings suggested that the “investigation” was focused more on scoring political points than on exposing the facts. One of the core reasons for this, of course, is the extreme polarization that continues to grip Congress, but another is that with respect to highly partisan issues, the standard hearing protocol tends to obscure key issues, rather than reveal facts in a clear way so the public can understand them.   

Congressional hearings commonly follow a format in which the chair and ranking member each give an opening statement followed by statements by other members of the committee. That is then followed by opening statements by the first panel of witnesses. Each member, then, is usually given five minutes to question the witnesses on the panel. The order of questioning rotates between the two parties, Republicans and Democrats, until all committee members who want to ask questions have been satisfied. Usually there are several such panels.  

While the intention of that process is to give each member the opportunity to participate, when the issue is highly partisan the result for the listening audience is often confusion and diversion from the most important facts and the true purpose of the hearing. The Jan. 6 committee chose to break that mold and agree beforehand to have brief opening statements by the chair and vice chair, no opening statements by the other members or witnesses, and to limit questioning largely to one member. The result has been to dramatically improve the clarity and public understanding of the facts.   

Complementing this new order is the committee’s use of visuals — excerpts from the earlier depositions and visual displays of key texts and memoranda. Using this technology has enabled the public to see firsthand the evidence the committee members have seen and heard. The difference in the impact is dramatic.  

Some critics complain that the committee had made up its mind on the facts before the hearings. Well, that’s true in most congressional hearings. The job of the committee during its investigation is to dig deeply into the facts so that the committee knows what the documents reveal and what the witnesses have said and will say in their testimony. The purpose of the hearings is to show the public what the committee has learned — in particular, the key evidence and how the committee interprets it. And when the subject of the hearings is highly political, the key evidence can get lost in the political back and forth among the members or in questions being asked that are extraneous to the purpose of the hearing. See, for example, the Benghazi hearings. 

But here, the Jan. 6 committee has shown us how a committee, with forethought, the judicious use of technology, and bipartisan cooperation, can provide to the public detailed information in a clear and convincing manner that focuses on the substance of the material being presented and not on the personalities or political aspirations of the committee members.  

This requires, of course, the involvement and agreement of all committee members. Obviously, such unity of purpose is not always possible; in fact, it’s all too rare. But it is possible, as evidenced by previous successful investigations, such as Watergate and the Joint Inquiry into the 9-11 Terrorist Attacks, where all participants agree that informing the public in an understandable way is the real goal of congressional hearings. Hopefully, future investigations of this nature will adopt the mindset and methods of the Jan. 6 committee for the benefit of the public and American democracy. 

Jim Townsend is director of the Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy. 

Tags congressional hearings January 6 Committee

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