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From Washington to Trump: The History of Congressional Hearings

Since the country’s founding, the federal government has had its fair share of scandals often followed by a congressional hearing to find out what went wrong and why. Some are famous, others less so.

Joseph N. Welch (left) being questioned by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (right), June 9, 1954, during the Army-McCarthy hearings. McCarthy lost momentum when Welch, the Army’s special counsel, famously asked, “Until this moment, senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or recklessness. … Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” (Wikipedia)
Later this month, the Jan. 6 Committee will resume its televised hearings. While these hearings are unprecedented in their production value and their bipartisan comity, they are only the latest in a long line of congressional hearings designed to exercise oversight of the executive branch.

The House of Representatives held its first investigative committee hearing in the spring of 1792. The American army under the command of General Arthur St. Clair had been decimated by a force of Miamis, Shawnees, Delawares and Potawatomi the previous fall at the Battle of Wabash. Congress created a committee to explore the causes of the defeat and implement reforms to prevent a reoccurrence.

While that purpose seems straightforward, the committee was unprecedented for two reasons. First, the defeat had been a huge scandal as many Americans assumed their army couldn’t be defeated by Native forces. Second, the committee called witnesses and requested all papers from the Treasury and War departments pertaining to the mission. Congress had never requested executive materials and President George Washington and the Cabinet considered whether to assert executive privilege. Ultimately, Washington decided to comply with the request, but only after asking the committee to rephrase its request directly to him, rather than to the departments.

The committee concluded that no one person was responsible for the failure, but rather a combination of poor supply lines, corruption and training. Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox implemented a series of reforms to address the committee’s concerns. The committee also established the precedent that they had the right to investigate the executive branch, and Washington started a centuries-old tradition of presidential cooperation with congressional committees.

Congress created a similar oversight committee in December 1861 to investigate the causes of the Union defeat at the Battles of Bull Run and Ball’s Bluff. Over the next four years, the committee met 272 times and analyzed Union generals, the abuse of funds in military supply contracts, the poor treatment of Union prisoners by Confederate forces, “the massacre of Cheyenne Indians, Union trade activities, and gunboat construction” and other potential causes for military losses. The committee made a series of recommendations, which President Abraham Lincoln adopted when it suited him, including the removal of Major General George McClellan and Brigadier General Charles Pomeroy Stone.

Congress continued to explore corruption and scandal in both the executive branch and private industry over the next several decades before creating a new committee to scrutinize the Teapot Dome contracts in the Warren Harding administration. Under the leadership of Democratic Sen. Thomas Walsh, the committee investigated private oil company leases at Teapot Dome in Wyoming and two locations in California. The hearings resulted in the arrest, conviction and imprisonment of Secretary of the Interior Albert Bacon Fall — the first cabinet secretary ever sent to prison. The corruption and hearings were considered the most sensational scandal in U.S. politics. For the moment, anyway.

The next round of significant hearings didn’t start with an executive branch scandal. Instead, Sen. Joe McCarthy, a relatively unimportant and unpopular congressman, used the power of television and hearings to raise his standing. In a televised speech in February 1950, McCarthy alleged that he had evidence of “Communist influence within the press and the federal government, including the State Department, the U.S. Army and the Government Printing Office.”

Initially, McCarthy’s plan worked. In 1953 and early 1954, the Committee on Government Operations conducted hearings into the various government offices McCarthy had accused of Communist sympathies. In late 1954, McCarthy turned his attention to the U.S. Army, partially to distract from a separate and concurring investigation into his own conduct. The “Army-McCarthy hearings” were nationally televised and culminated in the famous moment when Joseph N. Welch, the Army’s special counsel, asked, “Until this moment, senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or recklessness. … Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Whereas McCarthy had been able to bluster his way through press conferences and intimidate previous witnesses, his tactics didn’t fare as well when matched against the Army’s cool professionalism. Over the next several months, McCarthy fell from grace, culminating in the Senate censure on Dec. 2, 1954.

While several of the Army-McCarthy hearings were broadcast, the Watergate hearings were the first to become regularly televised. All 51 days of hearings were taped and aired, “gavel-to-gavel.” They were split into three parts: the Watergate break-ins, Campaign Practices and Campaign Finance. The hearings were truly investigatory; they started with smaller witnesses and moved up to individuals in President Richard Nixon’s inner circle as they uncovered more information and connections.

The Senate hearings concluded in November 1973. The following May, the House of Representatives conducted hearings into possible impeachment charges. These sessions were closed to TV cameras, but the House resumed television coverage for the public debate, from July 24 to July 30, 1974. These debates were the first time the House floor had been broadcast, as previous coverage had been of specific committee activity.
Nixon hated PBS, but his Watergate scandal gave the fledgling network a major hit
American politicians (left to right) Senator Howard Baker of Tennesse, Senator Sam Irvin of North Carolina, Majority Council Sam Dash, Senator Herman E Talmadge of Georgia and Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii listening to the testimony of James McCord, one of the Watergate burglers, during the Watergate hearings.
(Gene Forte/Getty Images/TNS)
After the conclusion of these hearings, on Aug. 5, the White House released a previously unknown recording of Oval Office conversations revealing Nixon’s knowledge and participation in the cover-up after the Watergate break ins. With this revelation, Nixon’s remaining political support evaporated and he resigned on Aug. 9, 1974. The Watergate hearings had brought down the president, a first in American history.

More recently, the Iran-Contra investigation explored the sale of weapons to Iran and the funneling of funds to the Contras, a right-wing rebel group in Nicaragua, during the second term of the Ronald Reagan administration. The hearings, held in May 1987 in conjunction with independent investigations appointed by both Reagan and the Department of Justice, were intended to determine how much the president knew about these various programs.

The various investigations produced several dozen indictments, including Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and 11 convictions. Most charges were dismissed and sentences commuted when President George H.W. Bush issued pardons of the officials involved.

Unlike many of the previous examples, the Iran-Contra hearings were intensely partisan. From 1792 to Watergate, congressmen on both sides participated in the hearing process. There are some exceptions, of course. During the Civil War, Southern Democrats largely left Congress, so the war oversight committee was primarily packed with various factions of the Republican Party. Similarly, Nixon retained support in the Republican Party until August 1974, when the leaders of the party refused to cover for his crimes.

In 1987, most Republicans accused the committee of a witch-hunt that would expose the nation to international ridicule.

Today, the Republican Party uses similar language to describe the Jan. 6 Committee Hearings, reflecting the stark partisan divide that has characterized the political system since the 1980s.

The J6 Committee hearings offer several other historic parallels. They are televised, like the McCarthy, Watergate and Iran-Contra hearings. They are bipartisan, like so many of the investigations in the last 200 years, and they have bipartisan leadership. When Senator Walsh led the inquiry into the Teapot Dome scandal, he did so with the support and approval of Republican leadership and Sen. Robert La Follette in particular. Therefore, while it was remarkable to see Liz Cheney take over the committee in Bennie Thompson’s absence, it was not unprecedented.

And yet, the J6 hearings are also unique in one very important way. No committee has ever investigated a president for causing a violent insurrection to overthrow the results of a national election. For that, they are making history.
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., speaks during a hearing by House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection, in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C., on June 9, 2022.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky is an expert in the cabinet, presidential history, and U.S. government institutions. She can be found on Twitter at @lmchervinsky.
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