Congressional Hearings – What They’ve Become

Congressional Hearings – What They’ve Become

© David Burton 2020

Congressional Hearings

     “During the 1950s, Senator Joe McCarthy convened hearings to discover Soviet moles in Hollywood, the State Department and the U.S. Army. The Army-McCarthy Hearings led to his downfall. Abusive practices by Committee and Subcommittee chairmen (no women) were reined in. Occasionally, hearings even became vehicles for serious and sustained investigations. Senator J. William Fulbright of the Foreign Relations Committee held extended hearings on the extent of U.S. security commitments abroad – uncovering facts that came as an unwelcome surprise to many of his colleagues and an interested public. Senator Sam Irvin of the Judiciary Committee conducted impeachment hearings with courtesy and restraint on President Richard M. Nixon’s fitness for office. The biggest and the best hearings of this era pursued fact-finding in a balanced way.
     “These days are long gone. Hearings on Capitol Hill have again become inquisitions – yet another indicator of poisonous partisanship.  . . .
     “There are few outlets on Capitol Hill to reduce toxicity levels. One release valve would be to pass meaningful legislation, but Republicans would need to join with Democrats to do this, {which has so proved impossible}
     “The vacuum created by not passing bills into law has been filled with hot air . . .
      - - -
     “. . . {Congressional} hearings have again become auto-da-fés. One purpose of hearings is to drive up political resentments and negatives under the guise of fact-finding.  . . .” (Ref. 1)

     Many of the hearings held in the Senate of the House are nothing but showcasing, publicity, celebrity and grandstanding hearings which most often involve some type of unique or controversial issue, or some significant public figure who can be hectored and pilloried before television cameras. Congressional Hearings have too often been nothing but a modern form of the medieval inquisition.

     Most often these days, Congressional hearings are not impartial hearings. They are designed to gather publicity for the politicians and they present little opportunity for those being queried to properly defend themselves against the charges, inuendoes and misrepresentations being hurled at them by unscrupulous publicity hungry politicians.

     “The pillory or public whipping post went out of fashion in England and Europe by the 1830’s but non-public whippings, usually in prisons, occurred until the 1960’s in various jurisdictions including the US. However, the US has not abandoned Verbal Whippings in Congress. Congress has used its Congressional Hearings mechanisms to whip verbally and chastise publicly various targets stretching back to the Credit Mobilier case of post Civil War Reconstruction through the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920’s to the more recent Army-McCarthy, Watergate, Iran Contra among others. But with decline of Congress to some of the lowest poll ratings in decades, action has to be taken. Hence the rise in Public Verbal Whippings by various Congressional Committees.” (Ref. 2) These “public whippings” are not so much to punish the alleged perpetrators of what is charged as they are intended to satisfy the appetite of the voting public for a spectacle similar to that of the deadly games in the Coliseum of ancient Rome that garnered public support for the emperors who provided the spectacles.

     Besides being venues for inquisitional-type kangaroo courts, publicity seeking and public floggings, congressional hearings have also often devolved into pulpits for conspiracy theorists. “Stanley Kubrick helped the US government fake the moon landing. Beyoncé and Jay-Z are in the Illuminati. These stories are so well-worn that folks know them by heart. By now, conspiracy theories are a part of everyday American life—so much so that they even come from the mouths of besuited members of Congress on live television.
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     “Yet, all of this should leave you flabbergasted. Members of Congress ought to come armed with evidence—any evidence—before they air out a theory in such a formal setting. But these things go largely unchecked, because more and more often no one is surprised; they're inoculated to it. For some committee members, demonstrating that they're hep to their constituents' online musings seems to supersede congressional hearings' purpose: fact-finding. We've now entered the age of conspiracy politics.
     “Even before they became a Trump-era norm, conspiracy-minded congressional hearings were something of an American political tradition. In 1954, as the Red Scare reached its panic point and the McCarthy hearings began, the stakes for what had been dry and wonkish inquiries changed forever: For the first time, hearings would be televised, live and in their entirety. Scholars at the time argued that the broadcasts were making a spectacle of governance, that providing politicians opportunities for televised grandstanding would leave the public (and congressional investigators) short on facts and long on partisan rhetoric.
     “They were right. By the mid-1970s, congressional hearings were no longer just about information gathering—they had become . . . ‘ritual performance’ of participants' ideologies. Whether there's real truth to uncover is irrelevant: Watergate (and the Iran-Contra affair and President George W. Bush's Iraq exaggerations) were as rife with conspiratorial partisan snipery as Benghazi. ‘A party out of power will often push far-fetched claims about the president and his party. Sometimes it's a necessary counterweight,’ says {the} author of American Conspiracy Theories. That's the argument Democrats might make for their own conspiracy-driven windmill tilting. ‘What's changed in the Trump era is Donald Trump.’
     “Even before they became a Trump-era norm, conspiracy-minded congressional hearings were something of an American political tradition.
     “Typically, the party of the president (and the president himself) eschew conspiracy narratives. Breaking that rule used to come with swift penalty. As First Lady, Hillary Clinton was mocked for claiming she and President Clinton were the victims of a ‘vast right-wing conspiracy,’ and so was President Obama when a 2012 campaign ad insinuated ‘secretive oil billionaires’ were out to get him. Not so with President Trump. ‘Conspiracy theorists brought him to the prom, so now he has to dance with them,’ . . . Politicians who want to escape the president's Twitter-amplified ire (and please Trump-voting constituents) have to step in time. The echoes of ‘deep state’ anxieties and other right-wing conspiracy theories that echoed through the hearings of James Comey, William Barr, Peter Strzok, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Michael Cohen, and just about anybody who's sat before Congress in the last two years, weren't made by disconnected congresspeople left in the sun too long. They were made by canny politicians toeing a new party line more confidently with each hearing.
     “The result is a constant hail of conspiracy theories beating down from political elites on both sides of the aisle. That worries . . . an American public policy and misinformation researcher at Boston University. ‘What's scary is that there's spillover,’ . . . ‘Exposure to conspiracy theories about any aspect of government reduces your trust in its institutions overall. These hearings are going to diminish trust in the House and Senate.’ What other reasonable reaction could there be to a fact-finding squad with members doing their best to deflect attention from the facts?
     “In a way, the internet dumped butane on the fire started by televising the Red Scare. It's now possible to consume only curated snippets of the news that suit your own mores and biases, and conspiracy theorists have never been so able to easily rally together or had access to a wider swathe of humanity to sway. That's when objective reality starts to slip. ‘We're not able to decide when something is a conspiracy anymore,’  . . . ‘The stigma of believing in a conspiracy theory might start going away because people disagree about basic reality, and have very partisan ideas about who the conspirators are.’
     "This, of course, is the danger. If everyone can occupy a universe of information of their own choosing, it's not just politicians who are apt to fall prey to bias-confirming conspiracies—we all are. But that's just a theory.” (Ref. 3)

     In a recent demonstration of the sorry state of congressional hearings, “Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday {23 October 2019}. The hearing was supposed to be about his planned cryptocurrency, Libra, but the proceedings frequently felt like a show trial for Facebook's beleaguered CEO, who was repeatedly asked loaded gotcha questions. [Emphasis mine]
     " ‘Have you learned that you should not lie?’ asked Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D–N.Y.). It was a surprise she didn't add: And have you stopped beating your wife?
     “Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) attacked Zuckerberg for allowing misleading political ads to appear on Facebook, something that has increasingly irritated high-profile Democrats as of late—most notably regulation-obsessed Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), who recently warned that ‘Facebook is actively helping Trump spread lies and misinformation. Facebook already helped elect Donald Trump once. They might do it again—and profit off of it.’
     " ‘I'm not talking about spin, I'm talking about actual disinformation,’ said Ocasio-Cortez, as if these are two things that Facebook content moderators could both easily distinguish and police in a fair and unbiased way.
     “Zuckerberg responded that he believed ‘in a democracy, people should be able to see for themselves what politicians which they may or may not vote for are saying, and judge their character for themselves.’ Ocasio-Cortez then pivoted to interrogating him about his ‘ongoing dinner parties with far-right figures, some of whom advance the conspiracy theory that white supremacy is a hoax.’
     “The idea that Facebook's misleading political ads are any more threatening to democracy than the hours of ideological, agenda-driven advocacy for one party or another that appear on television and the radio every day is a kind of moral panic. Social media is certainly the newer phenomenon, and that has made it the object of hatred for legislators who reflexively fear something they don't understand and can't control.
     “Many Republicans were also inclined to meddle in Facebook's affairs. Rep. Bill Posey (R–Fla.) criticized Zuckerberg for policing anti-vaxxer content. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R–N.C.), the committee's ranking Republican, said he had ‘qualms’ about Facebook's practices, though he did not wish to side against ‘American innovation.’
     “But some of the most absurd questions came from Reps. Maxine Waters (D–Calif.) and Al Green (D–Texas), who went after the CEO for not doing more to promote diversity. Green asked how many of the people working on the Libra project were members of the LGBTQ+ community, raising the question of whether Congress expected Zuckerberg to interrogate his employees regarding their sexuality.
     “Rep. Waters to Zuckerberg: ‘Since Reverend Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Push Coalition called upon Silicon Valley companies to release its diversity statistics more than five years ago, the representation of African-Americans and Hispanics has increased by less than 2 percent.’
     “Waters urged Zuckerberg to hit pause on Libra, saying: ‘As I have examined Facebook's various problems, I have come to the conclusion that it would be beneficial for all if Facebook concentrates on addressing its many existing deficiencies and failures before proceeding any further on the Libra project.’ One could have forgiven Zuckerberg if he'd curtly reminded the representative that Facebook is his company, not hers.” (Ref. 4)

     All in all, the hearing on Libra and the inquisition-like treatment of Mark Zuckerberg was nothing more than a public lynching and an embarrassing example of political showboating in front of the television cameras. The abominable behavior of the members of Congress who participated in the fiasco provided more proof of the depths to which politicians in both parties have fallen. For Shame!


  1. Congressional Hearings as Inquisitions, Michael Krepon,, 16 July 2016.
  2. The Public Whippings of Goldman Sachs,, April 2010.
  3. Trump-Era Congressional Hearings Have Succumbed to Conspiracy Politics,
    Emma Grey Ellis,, 1 March 2019.
  4. Congress Asked Mark Zuckerberg a Bunch of Really, Really Stupid Questions at the Libra Hearing, Robby Soave,, 23 October 2019.

  13 February 2020 {Article 400; Politics_57}    
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