Let Staff Ask the Questions

By Linda Chavez

May 3, 2019 5 min read

There aren't many advantages to being old — and at nearly 72, I qualify — but having actually lived through historic events gives one certain insights. From 1972 to 1974, I was a young staffer on the House Judiciary Committee. I was hired to the professional staff even though I did not have a law degree. I was the first woman on the professional staff outside the staff director, who began her career as a secretary for then-Chairman Emanuel Celler. Committee hearings at the time were pretty staid affairs, with members less likely to give long-winded speeches and more likely to leave the serious questions to staff. Next to the chair and ranking minority member sat the majority and minority counsel, whose duty it was to ask substantive questions of the witnesses at committee hearings. Because I wasn't an attorney, I usually sat behind the chairman and passed him questions that needed to be asked if he failed to follow up on the list I had given him in preparation for the hearings. But after serving in the role of staff analyst for two years, I finally got my chance to sit in the counsel seat and question witnesses. No member objected, nor did the witnesses.

My tenure on the Judiciary Committee staff coincided with the impeachment of Richard M. Nixon. The chairman of the committee by that time, Peter W. Rodino, hired an entire new staff of lawyers and researchers to oversee the impeachment work, but the committee continued to function on two tracks, with subcommittees continuing their work on legislative and oversight issues while the hearings on impeachment proceeded separately. But on all the work, counsel — or in my case, staff analyst — asked many of the most substantive questions during the process. In the Senate, the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, which came to be known as the Watergate Committee, made majority counsel Sam Dash almost as famous as the chairman, Sam Ervin, while John Doar became a well-recognized figure for his role as special counsel to the House impeachment inquiry.

So why does Attorney General William Barr object to being questioned by staff? His refusal to do so at Thursday's scheduled House Judiciary Committee hearing has now prompted a showdown between Congress and the administration, one of many initiated by the president and his staff. Barr performed badly before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, despite having the Republican majority on his side. He obfuscated on some of his answers and misled on others. Despite having answered a direct question in an April 10 House committee hearing on whether he had any reason to believe special counsel Robert Mueller had objections to Barr's publicly announced conclusion about the report, he replied, "I don't know whether Bob Mueller supported my conclusions." A lawyer intent on nailing him down would have followed up with precision, pointing out that Barr had received a letter from Mueller objecting to Barr's presentation of the report prior to his statement on April 10. "How do you reconcile your statement with Mr. Mueller's letter of March 27, that you 'did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance' of the report and, therefore, 'There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation'?" he or she might ask. "This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the special counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations."

The problem with politicians asking such questions is that they always look partisan, even when they ask them coolly and refrain from making speeches. Sen. Kamala Harris asked Barr the right questions, but no one watching could forget that she's running for president, as is Sen. Corey Booker, who at least showed greater restraint this time than during the confirmation hearing for Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Republicans were more than happy to let a nonmember ask questions during the Kavanaugh hearings when witness Christine Blasey Ford testified against the nominee, but now you'd think Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler was suggesting an unprecedented procedure when he wanted to give the majority counsel 30 minutes to question the attorney general — with equal time for minority counsel to follow up.

Everything has become theater, with no concern for getting at the truth. Call me old-fashioned, but I'd like to return to a time when truth mattered and we could count on public officials to show up and answer questions — no matter who asked them — when Congress summoned.

Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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