When presidents run into trouble at home, they travel. When Congress needs to burnish its image, it holds hearings.
The 106th Congress began with the investigation of a president. It is winding down with most of its top legislative priorities sidelined or blocked - no big tax cuts for Republicans, no bold new prescription drug plans or gun-control measures for Democrats. And must-pass appropriations bills are headed into overtime.
But the business of interrogating witnesses is booming. Last week, the heads of eight Hollywood studios faced a wall of senators and cameras to answer questions on the marketing of violence to children. Earlier, the CEOs of Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc. faced multiple hearings in the House and Senate on whether they had endangered the public by withholding information on tire safety.
Even obscure hearings are making waves. A House committee's Sept. 14 hearings on whether Armenians were the victims of a genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks (circa 1915-23) set off alarms in Turkey and among American defense contractors, who worry that some $20 billion in Turkish defense contracts could be scuttled if the genocide resolution comes to a House vote.
"We spent $56 million and weeks and weeks of our time on the Clinton investigation. Then we investigate Chinese 'espionage.' Then something comes up in the news about cloning and we hold hearings on that. There is no end to investigations around here. But we never get around to legislating," says Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, the minority whip.
The Democratic-controlled Congresses that produced the Great Society programs in the 1960s had thumping majorities for the president's party. The GOP-controlled 106th has had to manage with a 12-seat margin in the House and an eight-seat edge in the Senate - too slim to cut off a Senate filibuster or overturn a presidential veto.
Nor is it clear that voters are unhappy when lawmakers fail to produce lots of new laws. Polls show that many people like the idea that Congress and the president curb each other. "We find that when you argue [gridlock] in a focus group, people say 'Good!' " said GOP pollster Bill McInturff at a Monitor breakfast last week.
But if lawmakers are unable to make a mark by putting their names on laws, they are staking out positions important to their electorates in hearings.
Rep. Jim Rogan (R) of California is using his sponsorship of the genocide resolution as a key element in his reelection campaign. Armenian voters could be decisive in this close race in the 27th district, at the edge of Los Angeles.
"There are always incentives for members of Congress to conduct investigations, especially in an election year," says Sarah Binder, a fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "Taking on Firestone or Hollywood is relatively easy to do, because it allows members to take positions on issues important to their constituents without having to form coalitions or pass legislation.
"The last time we had a margin of control this close was in the 83rd Congress [1953-55], which produced hearings on Soviet spy rings and subversion," she adds.
The role of TV
Television gave a powerful boost to the business of congressional investigation. Some 20 million viewers watched Sen. Estes Kefauver's investigation of organized crime in 1950. The high-intensity Army-McCarthy hearings were covered live on three television networks in 1954. And Sen. J. William Fulbright's televised Vietnam hearings helped drive down public approval ratings for the war 14 points from Jan. 26 to Feb. 26, 1966.
More recently, seven tobacco executives lined up before a congressional committee on April 14, 1994, and swore under oath that nicotine was not addictive. At the end of those hearings, the industry had agreed to stop marketing cigarettes to children and began negotiating terms for a tobacco settlement.
Such congressional investigations can be "the most eye-catching kinds of pursuit in American public life," writes Yale political scientist David Mayhew in "America's Congress," a recent study of congressional history.
"If any realm exists in which [Congress] can be autonomous and consequential, it is in the realm of investigation," he says.
This month's Firestone and Hollywood hearings are textbook cases of high-profile investigations. Over days of hearings, lawmakers fired questions at auto and tire executives. Last week, the Senate Commerce Committee approved legislation making it a crime for executives to knowingly sell defective tires. Faulty Firestone tires are now being blamed for the deaths of 101 motorists.
"Such investigations are arising out of events, such as the Firestone recall. You've got figures in Congress who see a great opening to take advantage of that, especially now that they're having great trouble legislating," says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
The Hollywood hearings were prompted by the release of a new Federal Trade Commission report that highlights abuses in the marketing of violent movies and video games to children. Studio executives were no-shows at the first round of hearings, but responded to mounting public criticism with 12 initiatives to curb advertising and marketing to children and give parents more information about ratings.
Parents attending the hearings say they hope Congress moves beyond a war of words on this issue. "Now that the movie industry has been forced to acknowledge that there is a problem, millions of moms and dads will be watching closely to see what, if any, changes actually take place after the Senate hearing concludes," says Daphne White, director of the Lion & Lamb Project, a parents group based in Bethesda, Md.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society