When Hillary Clinton appears Thursday before the House committee investigating an attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, the hearings will be the biggest show in town. Her testimony will grab domestic headlines and likely make news around the world, as well. But the platform for this upcoming discussion — the congressional hearing — will be a venue whose best days may have come in the past. Hearings once had extraordinary influence, especially in the years after World War II. In today's era of bitter partisanship and an ever-more fragmented media environment, hearings have lost their luster, and we need to revise their role in public debates in order to make them relevant again.
Hearings on Capitol Hill were once relatively rare. In the period between the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century, fewer than 100 were held each year. By 1972, though, the 92nd Congress held more than 2,000 hearings. A large part of the growth followed logically from the massive growth of government: With more money flowing into Washington, a decline in federalism and the professionalization of the bureaucracy, there was far more for Congress to oversee.
Early hearings reflected the simple desire of leaders to get information. That's why there was no requirement that they be chronicled in the official record until 1938. But over time, hearings were not only made accessible to those outside the hearing room; they also became part of the historical record. Thus the congressional hearing, a relatively minor aspect of 19th-century governance, emerged in the 20th century as a key element of life in Washington. For the public, the gavel-pounding chairman calling for order became an iconic image of Congress.
For a long time, many hearings were bipartisan affairs, with members on both side of the aisle trying to get to the heart of the matter, rather than simply advancing partisan interests. During the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, for example, both Democratic Senate Minority Leader Lyndon Johnson and Republican President Dwight Eisenhower were McCarthy opponents. They worked behind the scenes for the same result — to discredit McCarthy. Both men pushed for the hearings to be televised, because they felt that McCarthy would not play well on live TV. As Eisenhower aide Jim Hagerty wrote in his diary, "Ike wants hearings open and televised." Johnson felt similarly. Johnson's brother Sam Houston Johnson noted that LBJ thought that "two minutes a night on television during the Army hearings wasn't enough. McCarthy had to be seen day after day during the entire hearings on the Army. He thought that would make people see what the bastard was up to." Ike and Johnson were right: The hearings permanently damaged McCarthy, who came off as a vindictive bully.
One of the primary drivers shaping past hearings was how certain ones dominated TV coverage. According to historians Gary Edgerton and Peter Rollins, the Army-McCarthy hearings were "America's first nationally televised political spectacle." The Nixon-Watergate hearings of 1973 to 1974 were an even bigger phenomenon, shown on national television for three months, and seen by 85 percent of the American people. Sixty million Americans watched the testimony of White House counsel John Dean. In the Iran-Contra hearings of the 1980s, Lt. Col Oliver North's testimony was so compelling that his haircut — the Ollie — became a popular style at barbershops across the nation.
It is extremely unlikely that the Benghazi hearings will have anywhere near that kind of pop culture impact. These days, hearings tend to be seen as partisan affairs, and coverage is often limited to C-SPAN and select cable news channels — heavy rotation on MSNBC when Democrats are in the majority, and big play on Fox news when Republicans hold the gavel. There are good reasons why hearings no longer run live on the major networks, nor are they followed by the American people as if they were soap operas. The truth is that in many cases, hearings are just plain worse than they once were, creating a negative feedback loop: The lack of quality and the lack of popularity build upon each other. The very factors that have made them less useful as tools of governance — partisanship, poor attendance by lawmakers, a dearth of compelling subjects — have also led the public to lose interest in them. It may not be possible to recapture hearings' lost luster, but they could still be improved.
One way to do this is to make the hearings more bipartisan. Members from each party may balk at "unilateral disarmament," but the truth is that hearings were more engaging, and had more impact, when they were bipartisan. In the Watergate hearings, Democratic Chairman Sam Ervin allowed Republican staffer — and future GOP senator — Fred Thompson to ask the key question of White House aide Alexander Butterfield, revealing that Nixon had a secret taping system that recorded his meetings in the White House: "Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?" Ervin thought it only fair that the Republicans, who had discovered this crucial piece of information, got to bring it out. This kind of bipartisan moment typically does not happen in contemporary hearings, but if it did, hearings might once again become far more effective.
This week, the majority Republicans ought to take the first steps at bipartisanship, as Ervin did 40 years ago. Republicans should use the gavel fairly and not wield it in an attempt to silence opposing points of view. The burden should not fall exclusively on the Republicans, though. Questions of mishandling of classified material and protecting U.S. officials stationed abroad are important issues that Congress has a duty to examine. For their part, Democrats should ask serious questions, and not just try to defend Clinton, the front-runner for their presidential nomination. Instead, they should work with the GOP to try to get to the heart of the matters being raised. It may sound like a pipe dream in these hyper-partisan times, but the potential for greater dialogue and more transparent exchanges also brings a greater opportunity to improve both the quality and the public appetite for modern hearings.
Another way to improve hearings is for members to show up. The absence of most lawmakers from most hearings (except when they are the ones asking the questions) makes it seem like the hearings are just for show and not a serious exploration of issues. This kind of pop-in-and-pop-out approach led to an embarrassing incident last year, in which Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) began asking questions of Undersecretary of Treasury for Terrorism David Cohen — questions that should have been directed in another hearing to Principal Deputy Defense Undersecretary Mike McCord. Midway through Coats' questioning, a staffer handed the senator a note. Coats read it and said: "I just got a note saying I'm at the wrong hearing." In Coats's defense, at least he showed up. Too often members do not come at all. A 2014 analysis of hearing attendance data by the Washington Examiner found that "dozens" of House members were absent at two-thirds of their committee meetings. Skipping hearings can have real consequences. If members attend, they can "protect" witnesses from tough questioning by the other party. Members cannot, of course, control the questions of others, but they can give their own witnesses — who are, after all, invited guests — the opportunity to respond to questions or allegations that may have been issued from the other side.
Another improvement: Make hearings more strategic and less reactive. Members, particularly those in the majority who control the schedule, should try to build a case for a policy over time rather than just reacting to a specific headline. As Jim Hamilton, who served as a lawyer on the Senate Watergate Committee, recalled, "We built the hearings like a story." Making policy or political differences into a compelling story takes time, preparation and hard work. The Watergate committee devoted well over a year to its hearings, something that our attention-challenged electorate may have trouble comprehending. The Butterfield revelation — the one that doomed the Nixon presidency — came as a result of pre-hearing investigations and an off-camera interview with a key witness. TV moments may be what people remember, but those moments happen only after hours of preparation and investigation that take place long before the camera goes on.
Encouraging members to be respectful, to give witnesses and the other party time to make their points would also make hearings more compelling. This obligation may fall more heavily on the majority party, but both sides would benefit from presenting a more collegial face to the nation. We saw this play out at last year's hearings on the Internal Revenue Service. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Reform & Oversight Committee, unwisely got frustrated with his Democratic counterpart, Elijah Cummings (Md.), who was trying to ask a question that was in reality more of a statement. Issa cut off Cummings's microphone, and even made a hand-to-throat gesture to indicate his desire to prevent Cummings from speaking. That meant the hearing got attention, but it was an unwanted variety, as Democrats used the incident to accuse the Republicans of partisanship and heavy-handedness. Even Cummings's mother recognized the favor Issa had done for her son for his moment in the spotlight. As Cummings recalled, "My 88-year-old former-sharecropper mother said, 'Don't be mad at that man. That man done made you famous.' " Cummings may have benefited from the exchange, but the country saw it as just one more reason to tune out the partisan circuses that are the modern hearing. Let's hope the committee members — on both sides of the aisle — take some of this advice and make the upcoming Benghazi hearings something worth watching.