LIGHTS! CAMERAS! Action? The show has started on Capitol Hill, the hearings on Whitewater and Waco now occupy center stage, with investigations into Ruby Ridge and Bob Packwood waiting in the wings, but will any legislative action follow from these performances, will they bring about any change? Or is the play the thing, the spectacle all that the actors are interested in? Probably, but that's OK.
Hearings before congressional committees serve a variety of purposes, and legislation is the least of them. The very first congressional committee established to investigate suspected misconduct by the executive branch resulted in no action. But that 1792 inquiry into why Gen. Arthur St. Clair's expedition suffered such heavy losses at the hands of the Indians firmly established the right of the legislative branch to look into what members of the administration knew and when they knew it.
Investigations are the main attraction in what's usually the humdrum world of congressional hearings. Every day dozens of committees and subcommittees meet in chambers lined with the portraits of past chairmen to hear from people interested in informing the Congress about some issue or event. Those out-of-the-spotlight sessions often make a difference in how the laws are written. When the Voting Rights Act re-authorization was before the House Judiciary Committee in 1982, one of the committee's key members (now chairman), Illinois Republican Henry Hyde, told us that he began work on the bill with one set of views and the hearing process changed his mind. Hearings educate -- they educate members and the public -- but they don't always edify.
Among the earliest scenes from congressional hearings to show up on television came from the now infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. Its search for subversives catapulted an unknown California freshman congressman into national prominence in 1948. And it was no small irony that the man who came to fame grilling a witness about microfilm in a pumpkin should meet his political downfall 25 years later with testimony about tape recordings in the Oval Office. But Richard Nixon is just the most dramatic example of how hearings can make or break a politician. Harry Truman's stewardship of the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program from 1941-1948 helped put him in Franklin Roosevelt's line of vision when it came to picking a vice president in 1944.
Hoping that his own presidential ambitions would get the same kind of boost, Tennessee Democrat Estes Kefauver launched an investigation into organized crime that established the prototype of the modern-day media circus. It was 1950, television sets were becoming commonplace and the committee's well-publicized tour of 14 cities in 15 months meant that 30 million people watched the hearings. Partly because of peevishness among his colleagues about the publicity turning Estes Kefauver into a national figure, his legislative proposals to deal with the scandals he uncovered never went anywhere.
But Estes Kefauver's hearings taught Dwight Eisenhower an important lesson about how television affected public perception of politicians. President Eisenhower prevailed on the Senate Republican leadership to televise the McCarthy hearings because he suspected the camera would not look kindly on the senator from Wisconsin as he snarled at beribboned and bemedaled men in uniform. It was a lesson Congress learned again when rows of members sat high on a dais scowling down at Lt. Col. Oliver North.
Iran-contra often tops the critics' list of investigations gone bad. The committees handed out immunity with impunity, which had the effect of thwarting the criminal prosecution of the chief players. We agree that those hearings were badly bungled -- not because of the effect on the prosecution but because of the effect on the public. The committees were so intent on nailing something criminal on Oliver North and trying to pin the blame directly on Ronald Reagan that they never adequately explained why the whole affair was such a constitutional travesty -- how the financing of private armies to carry out policy explicitly forbidden by the elected representatives of the people flies in the face of basic democratic principles.
The Democrats who were in the majority at the time of Iran-contra had only one real mission in mind: They wanted to score political points by embarrassing the Reagan administration. Some even fantasized about bringing down the popular president. Republicans now start their season of surly questioning with similar goals. And as they ask their various versions of "what did the president know and when did he know it," they're likely to be more interested in how the question plays on television than what the answer might be. Still, there's a value to this process. Even if members of Congress aren't listening, the voters often are, and administrations always use their power a little more cautiously after enduring a painful congressional hearing. That's the change they effect -- and it's usually a welcome one.
Cokie Roberts is a commentator for ABC News. Steven V. Roberts is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report.