When lawmakers question witnesses on Capitol Hill, they typically do so in order of seniority. That’s why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most prominent House Democrats despite being elected only last fall, was among the final members to interrogate former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen in February. Unlike many of her colleagues, she put her allotted five minutes to good use.
Ocasio-Cortez quickly extracted useful information from Cohen about the president’s financial mischief before taking office. Her questions followed a pattern: First, is it true that Trump did Unsavory Thing X? Second, who else might have known that he did Unsavory Thing X? Third, where can we find more documents, records, and other forms of evidence that he did Unsavory Thing X? These lines of inquiry yielded valuable leads for Democrats to unearth whether Trump inflated his business holdings to dodge taxes or secure better loans.
Ocasio-Cortez was just doing her job; asking relevant questions of witnesses should be the baseline expectation for lawmakers during congressional hearings. Yet her concise, focused approach won plenty of praise from observers because too many members of Congress don’t do this well. They instead tend toward spectacle over substance, jockeying to make the best clips for the cable news cycle instead of extracting meaningful information from people who are legally obliged to provide it.
This habit is frustrating in general. But at a momentous time like Robert Mueller’s testimony to Congress on Wednesday, it would be a historic blunder that could cause lasting damage to American democracy.
Congressional hearings are rarely the most exciting thing on television. There are occasional blockbusters, such as James Comey’s appearance after Trump fired him as FBI director, or the back-to-back testimonies of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh. But those are the exceptions. Most Americans do not regularly tune into congressional hearings, even when they are relative blockbusters, and those who do so surely can’t be satisfied with the quality of representation that Congress provides.
Modern Supreme Court confirmation hearings are the most glaring examples of the charade of Capitol Hill hearings. Prospective justices nominated by Democrats and Republicans alike are loath to give hints about how they’ll vote in future cases, saying it would undermine judicial independence. The hearings thus have become a performative ritual: One party hopelessly tries to pry out a nominee’s views on abortion and LGBT rights, while the president’s party lauds the nominee’s legal bona fides without asking substantive questions about potential issues before the court.
Well before Blasey Ford’s allegations became public, Kavanaugh’s confirmation process represented Congress at its worst. Republicans shamelessly stonewalled Democrats on key records requests, providing only a fraction of documents from Kavanaugh’s White House tenure to the public or the Judiciary Committee members before his hearing. Senate Democrats meanwhile struggled to build a cohesive narrative against Kavanaugh’s nomination. Their scattershot questioning didn’t crack his practiced exterior or give his critics new material to use.
Even the more savvy committee members—notably two senators who would go on to become presidential candidates—fell short in awkward fashion. New Jersey’s Cory Booker staged what he described as a “Spartacus” moment during the third day of hearings, making a show of defying Senate rules to release “committee confidential” documents that weren’t as damning as his performance suggested. California’s Kamala Harris captivated observers with a line of questioning that seemed to hint that Kavanaugh had lied under oath about his contacts with one of Trump’s personal lawyers, but the subject later fizzled without resolution.
Mueller is likely to be as cryptic as a Supreme Court nominee, if not more so. “Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report,” the former special counsel told reporters at a press conference in May. “It contains our findings and analysis and the reasons for the decisions we made. We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself. And the report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.” At the time, Mueller said he was not interested in testifying before Congress about his investigation. House Democrats later forced his hand by issuing a subpoena.
But a witness’ reticence is no excuse for lazy or self-interested questions—of which there are sure to be many on Wednesday when Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Jerrold Nadler, and the House Intelligence Committee, chaired by Adam Schiff. (Ocasio-Cortez is on neither committee.)
As for how Congress might improve in this regard, lawmakers could hire a lawyer or use staff counsel to question witnesses. A single lawyer for the party would be less likely to grandstand for the cameras, deliver extemporaneous speeches, get diverted by meaningless tangents, or forget to ask relevant follow-up questions when necessary. Using staff counsel is common in closed-door sessions and isn’t unheard of in public ones, either: Majority and minority counsel were behind the most famous exchanges during the Watergate hearings.
There’s little hope that Democrats will take that route. House Oversight leaders originally slated Mueller to appear on July 17, only to push back his appearance by one week. The delay reportedly stemmed not from a scheduling conflict between the witness and the committee, but because members protested the two-hour window for questions, which would have left many of the less-senior members unable to question Mueller. Giving lawmakers the chance to ask him questions on national television seems to be the primary goal of the hearing; hearing his answers ranks second.
At a bare minimum, lawmakers should avoid asking questions that have already been answered. Democratic senators frequently asked identical questions during the Gorsuch and Kavanaugh hearings, as if the nominee would break down and finally spill their innermost thoughts after being asked for the tenth time about Roe v. Wade. This lack of coordination is particularly grating when the answer is obvious or the question is performative. Three separate lawmakers asked Cohen if Individual 1 in his indictment was the president of the United States—a fact that he had already proffered in his opening statement.
The Mueller hearings are an opportunity that can’t be squandered. The Mueller report is a damning glimpse into how Trump campaigns and governs. It contains evidence of unethical behavior and political wrongdoing by a sitting president. Its findings are even structured as if Mueller intended for lawmakers to use them in impeachment proceedings—an idea some top Democrats are finally warming to. Wednesday’s hearings may yet convince more of them to support the president’s ouster.
Many Republicans will try to discredit Mueller’s report by painting him as a rogue, partisan prosecutor. Others will act as ersatz defense attorneys for the president. But those interested in holding Trump accountable for his actions won’t have a better opportunity than these hearings. House Democrats may be hoping to emulate the Senate Watergate Committee when they question Mueller, but they would be better off emulating their famous freshman colleague.