From Watergate to Benghazi to Robert Mueller, U.S. history is full of congressional hearings. You’ve no doubt heard about them in the news, but do you know what those House and Senate committees actually do and what their role is in a democracy?
We address those questions and more with Doug Kriner, professor of Government at Cornell University and co-author of Investigating the President: Congressional Checks on Presidential Power. Doug studies the impact of congressional investigations as a check on the executive branch, and how committee activity differs when the government is united and divided.
Following the interview, Michael and Chris discuss how congressional investigations tie back to separation of powers and why the ability for one branch to check another is critical to democracy.
[7:46] Your research shows that there were 12,000 days of these investigative hearings. What were they doing during that time?
Sometimes they were listening to themselves talk, which is what we often sort of derive from when we watch these things. It’s supposedly questions, and mainly the member talking for most of their time, and they get a little bit of response from the witnesses. But I think that’s almost exactly what they’re for.
[9:00] How much leeway do these committees have?
Committees have very significant leeway to investigate almost anything they want, which is why the Benghazi investigation is a great example.
[10:31] Can you give us some examples of when those checks by the legislative to the executive have been successful?
So back in the 1970’s, we were having a policy debate that’s immediately relevant to what’s going on right now. This was the Church committee, which was founded to investigate abuse in the intelligence agencies.
[12:00] Why should my taxpayer dollars go to fund these things as opposed to things that might have a more direct impact on the average citizens day to day life?
We know what Congress’s approval rating is, it’s abysmal, and it’s almost always been abysmal. It’s almost always been lower than either of the other two branches. So what is the public view on investigations? We went into the field with another survey in which we basically just asked the question about whether Congress should investigate, and whether people support this idea.
[15:18] Why would there be a need for the House and the Senate to both investigate the same issue?
Inter-chamber rivalry, right? The fact that “I’m a member of the House, why on Earth would I want to let the Senate do this? I want my own input.” And vice versa.
[17:06] How do the House and Senate investigations on Russia differ from the work that Robert Mueller is doing?
It’s very interesting, and it’s a matter that’s continually being litigated. What areas does Congress want to punt on, and leave to the special council, versus where do they think duplication, even, can be profitable?
[21:59] Do you, in this climate that we’re in, do you think that we’ll see an independent council come back around again?
It’s interesting. The number of Republicans who have expressed publicly support for the idea of legislation protecting Bob Mueller, essentially post ex-factum, making him an independent council, yet I don’t see any calls by really by many on either side of the aisle for reinstituting the independent council statute so I doubt that we’re going to see that.
[22:40] What is the difference between open and closed testimony?
The use of closed sessions, the frequency of it has been going way down over the years. The intelligence committees though are always the exception. It’s because of the act creating them after the Church committee that sort of gave members of the intelligence committee access to different folks within the intelligence community and different levels of classified information that other members are not able to, that they’ve always conducted a bit more of their business in secret than other committees.
[24:35] What do these committees look like moving forward?
You’re exactly right. If you look at time diaries of members of Congress they’re spending a lot less time on committee and a lot more time raising money, and fundraising and campaigning. That said, one of the beauties of investigations for the people who end up spearheading it is that, it might serve their reelection prospect.