They Still Make a Difference

From the Marshall Plan to the Contract With America, congressional hearings have led to the passage of significant legislation. Mere mention of the words congressional hearing connotes major media extravaganzas to many Americans. The phrase suggests casts of colorful characters-congressional and otherwise-a full-court press, blazing television lights, surprise witnesses, and unexpected bombshells. Not all hearings either house of Congress holds conform to this image. Most don't. Those that produce major public policy initiatives may resemble it least. Two that did combine all these elements were the Watergate hearings of 1973 and '74. In the Senate, a self-proclaimed "country lawyer," Sam Ervin, became the most popular North Carolinian since Andy Griffith and before Michael Jordan. The Select Senate Committee also transformed Ervin's costar, Republican Howard Baker, into a celebrity. Baker's question "What did the president know and when did he know it?" changed how observers would regard all future investigations into presidential wrongdoing. They began watching for signals that a member of the president's party would join with the opposition to do him in. Over in the House of Representatives, New Jersey Cong. Peter Rodino emerged from 25 years of obscurity to gavel the proceedings to order as new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Washington insiders wondered whether Rodino was up to the job. They took him to their bosom when he retained John Doar as counsel. Doar, a nominal Republican who had served under Robert Kennedy at the Justice Department, won press plaudits for his professed neutrality about Nixon's possible guilt and for the team of eager legal beagles he gathered about him. One was Hillary Rodham. Heroes and clowns The heroine of the committee was freshman Texas Democrat Barbara Jordan, who captivated the country with a fiery opening statement about the Constitution. Playing the "clown" was New Jersey Cong. Charles Sandman, who denounced consecutive anti-Nixon Newsweek covers. In supporting roles were junior but "thoughtful" Republicans Bill Cohen and Tom Railsback. Richard Nixon went to his grave believing he was undone not for illegalities he had committed but for his role in another hearing probing executive-branch wrongdoing 30 years earlier. That forum was the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Nixon, then a freshman congressman, believed Whittaker Chambers' allegation that Alger Hiss-exalted member of the foreign policy establishment, noted New Dealer, and friend of Franklin Roosevelt, Dean Acheson, and Adlai Stevenson-had been a Soviet spy. The clash between Hiss and Chambers, who gave contradictory testimony on the matter, produced suspense. A jury found Hiss guilty of perjury, and a judge sent him to jail. Nixon's cross-examination of Hiss played no small part in the diplomat's undoing. Nixon recollected in his book Six Crises and in conversations with his last Boswell, Monica Crowley, his belief that Hiss' defenders in the press, universities, and prestigious law firms would get back at him. Another hearing that probed misconduct within the executive branch was the Army-McCarthy hearings in the 1950s. Fueled by the belief- within Republican circles and among much of the public-that communist incursions across Eastern Europe and China could not have happened without help within the American government, Sen. Joseph McCarthy began looking for Soviet agents on the government payroll. His failure to produce culprits and the sideshow antics of his assistants Roy Cohn and David Schine (who were as disliked by the media as John Doar would be popular) tried the Senate's patience and fueled journalistic investigations of the senator's tactics, methods, and motives. A witness effectively ended McCarthy's career with a famous question. "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" army counsel Joseph Walsh asked the senator. Important for passing bills Congressional hearings led to passage of significant pieces of legislation, such as the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, the Marshall Plan of 1948, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They also uncovered abuses outside the executive branch, bringing fame to congressional investigators. Glamorous hearings of the 1950s included the "labor rackets" inquiry (starring Chairman John McClellan, the brothers Kennedy, and Barry Goldwater), the Kefauver probe into the pharmaceutical industry, and, of course, the "quiz show" investigation. Beginning in the late 1960s, Congress began using hearings to change the course of foreign policy. Congress reasserted its prerogatives against a perceived imperial" presidency through the hearing process. The struggle over turf, policy, and ideology pitted branch against branch, party against party, and, often, Democrats against Democrats. Bill Clinton had his first experience with congressional hearings as an intern in the office of Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright. The Arkansan was then conducting televised hearings on the Vietnam War in early 1966. Fulbright's riveting questioning of Secretary of State Dean Rusk revealed a serious split in the foreign policy establishment. After witnesses Gen. James Gavin and George F Kennan, the architect of much of America's Cold War strategy, voiced disagreements with the administration's policy of gradual escalation and bombing, the media proclaimed it "respectable" to oppose the war. Prior to the Fulbright hearings, the only visible voices of dissent had been leftist magazines and student radicals. The hearings fulfilled Fulbright's intent of undermining public support for the war. After a month of questions about how many more men were needed and barbs about "lights at the end of tunnels," support for LBJ's handling of the war dropped from 63 to 49 percent. The hearings had destroyed any chance Lyndon Johnson had of selling his policy to the American people. They called it the "credibility gap." But the hearings did not shorten the war. For the next seven years, Congress continuously questioned the policy (at hearings) but consistently appropriated funds to execute it (after holding hearings). The war ended after the two presidents who pursued it had been forced from office and their successor was politically too weak to resist when Congress cut off the funds. Fulbright's hearings in some ways resembled those the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War Congress conducted to second- guess President Lincoln a century earlier, but with a major difference. They wanted to win the war they were investigating. Fulbright didn't. He saw hearings as a way to substitute his view of the communist threat-he differentiated between the Soviet challenge and nationalist "wars of liberation"-for the administration's. In the 1970s, Sen. Frank Church, in response to allegations of abuses within the CIA, held hearings into its activities. George Bush owed his continued popularity at the CIA to his having restored its morale in the aftermath. Many, inside and out side the agency, believed that the Church hearings had compromised its operations. Most who served on the IranContra hearings in the mid-1980s wanted to pursue illegal activities and identify their perpetrators. A few, however, saw in them an opportunity to put Reagan's policies in Central America on trial. Congressional opposition to those policies had produced the laws that Oliver North and company allegedly violated. But here again, congressional opposition was not enough to change the policy. B.T. (before televison) While spellbinders like these have become commonplace in the modern era, some of the most publicized and effective hearings Congress ever held preceded the advent of television. The Senate held hearings on the Titanic sinking. Woodrow Wilson never recovered, politically or physically, from the hearings that Henry Cabot Lodge- the elder-held on the Versailles Treaty, under the guise of "improving" it. Calvin Coolidge bested congressional critics who conducted public inquiries into the Teapot Dome. He fired his holdover attorney general for refusing to testify and demanded the appointment of two independent counsel (one from each party) before Congress even thought of it. Sen. Harry Truman's investigation into corruption within the defense industry landed him on the cover of T/me years before he became FDR's running mate. Thus far, the last two Republican Congresses have not produced blockbusters of these proportions, although they did expose abuses within the IRS. They were getting close in the case of those FBI files "mishandled" by the Clinton White House until the administration responded with a move of great originality. It inundated Congress with more allegations of corruption (INS, "hush money," Riady, Lincoln Bedroom, foreign contributions, Buddhist monks, Indian gaming, witnesses fleeing the country or taking the Fifth) than it could handle. To be sure, not all hearings Congress holds need be riveting or well publicized to influence national policy. From the day Congress held its first hearing in 1792 to investigate why Native American warriors in the Ohio territory had been able to defeat Gen. Arthur Sinclair, hearings have played a vital role in the legislative process. They have increased in both frequency and number in the last 25 years. Post-Watergate Congresses expande d the number of subcommittees. That allowed more congressmen to serve as chairs and to do so early in their legislative careers. Why have hearings? The reasons congressmen and senators hold hearings are almost as numerous as the number of hearings they hold. Often hearings are convened to consider the merits of specific legislation. Even when outcomes are predetermined, the gathering together of witnesses can build public support, establish a record, shape what happens in the other house and at conference committees, and help determine whether it is signed or vetoed. The Senate, through its powers to "ratify" treaties and "advise and consent" on appointments, has held some of the most extensive hearings in history Some concerned the Panama Canal Treaties. Although his party enjoyed a majority in the Senate, President Carter consciously avoided repeating the mistakes Woodrow Wilson had made in 1919. Carter carefully cultivated senators of the other party, produced witnesses from previous Republican administrations to testify in the treaties' favor, and saw the hearings as a way to build public support. Ironically, his success in achieving these goals gave an opening to a forceful debater who, while he could not stop the treaties, helped to rally its opponents. His name was Ronald Reagan. In the case of confirmations, the hearings the Senate held on Supreme Court nominees Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas set a new standard-some say a new low-in personal attack. Congressional Democratic staffers, fearful that Thomas' addition to the Court would pull it to the right on the political spectrum, took an unusual interest in his video rentals. After the senators had proclaimed themselves "satisfied" with Thomas' credentials, if not with his philosophy, rumor spread that he had allegedly "sexually harassed" a former subordinate. That gave rise to the highratings "Coke can"/"electronic lynching" episode. Sometimes, as in former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld's unsuccessful campaign to serve as ambassador to Mexico, a chairman, by refusing to hold a hearing, can achieve his goals. To cut perceived political losses, President Clinton withdrew Lani Guinier's name from consideration before the Senate Judiciary Committee could question her. Both houses use hearings as vehicles to hold agencies accountable for how they spend public funds, assess how effectively they fulfill missions Congress has set, and review how they are managed. Such occasions allow members of Congress to air in public complaints they receive from constituents. Political appointeesand more than a few nongovernmental recipients of public funds-have lost their jobs either for coming unprepared to hearings or for having testy relations with a chairman. Sometimes chairmen convene a hearing to study a problem of importance to their districts or states. Others might seize upon a specific issue on which to make their legislative mark or advance their careers. And chairmen can, on occasion, summon committees to expedite a whole series of laws, similar to what happened with the Contract With America. Celebrity showcases Every now and then, a chairman will bring a celebrity to testify in favor of a specific program. Who can forget the standingroom-only media circus that surrounded Elizabeth Taylor when she testified in favor of increased funds for AIDS research in the early 1980s? Others continue making the rounds. Many chairmen hold hearings to expose possible wrongdoing, not only within the executive branch but in the private sector. Bill Gates and his competitors appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee this year. Henry Waxman's famous hearing, at which several tobacco executives denied their product was addictive, may have been the opening shot of what has become the "great tobacco wars." Based on what hearings reveal, Congress determines whether to act on its own (impeachment, contempt citations, legislation) or turn the matter over to the Justice Department, the judiciary, independent counsel, or special prosecutors. Sometimes they are content to air an issue and let the press take over. Congress also holds "informational hearings." These afford opportunities to draw attention to a program that is successfully addressing a problem of national importance. Hearings like these can become a means through which a local charity, a faithbased drug rehabilitation program, or a highly successful school comes to the attention of potential volunteers and donors or find replicators. Reauthorization is a Washington word unfamiliar to most Americans. Yet it is a major reason that Congress holds hearings. Several agencies, especially those established in modern times, came with congressionally builtin "sunset" provisions. That means that unless Congress renews their charter for a specified amount of time, they cease operations at a certain date. Reauthorization hearings are anything but routine. Most of the controversies about the National Endowment for the Arts were debated at such hearings. Frequently, Congress granted reauthorizations to placate NEA critics and keep the agency on its toes. Through its capacity to hold hearings, Congress can make or break administration proposals. Even in situations where one party occupies the White House and another Congress, it is quite common-even in these times of supposed partisanship and "incivility"-for an administration to request hearings on its priorities. The degree to which the president's party controls Congress determines how well congressmen and presidents get along. Fulbright probably damaged Johnson's presidency as much as Lodge had Wilson's. Clinton's health-care proposals died in a Democratic Congress. Hearings helped determined outcomes in each case. Of all that can be said about them, one thing is for certain: Congressional hearings are here to stay. A noted political scientist recently opined that Congress was more effective at oversight than at lawmaking. He recommended therefore that to best influence policy, it should stop legislating altogether. That is not about to happen. And painful through they may be for presidential appointees and other witnesses, Congress won't stop holding hearings either.

Dr. Alvin Felzenberg

Read Dr. Felzenberg's latest writing as soon as it's published

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.