Sometimes it seems as if lawmakers do not coordinate their questioning of high-profile witnesses. They seem to ask questions that others have already asked, or they don’t cover what seems like a critical issue that others have not yet addressed.
Because lawmakers, oftentimes, in fact do not coordinate their questions before hearings with high-profile witnesses.
“I never talk to anybody about their questions,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said Thursday, a day after chairing a more-than-five-hour hearing with Attorney General William P. Barr as the lone witness.
Graham, the new Judiciary Committee chairman, said he leaves it up to individual Republican senators to decide how to approach their line of questioning, a freelance approach with which most lawmakers appear to agree.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said that Democrats on the Judiciary Committee sometimes huddle before a hearing to map out an approach, but she said she will sometimes decide what to do on the fly, depending on the witness.
“I have my own ideas about what I would do, such as yesterday,” Hirono said Thursday.
That meant that during Wednesday’s hearing with Barr, Hirono went several minutes without asking the attorney general a question, treating him as a hostile witness who should not be the attorney general because of how he had described the findings of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether President Trump obstructed justice.
“America deserves better. You should resign,” Hirono told Barr. “I have some questions for you.”
It was made-for-cable-news theater, drawing attention but eliciting few other answers from Barr. Her exchange with Barr ended with Graham declaring that she had “slandered” Barr and moving on to the next senator for questioning.
This overall lack of coordination is understandable, in the sense that individual lawmakers are elected representatives of their own constituents and have every right to ask whatever questions they want of big witnesses such as Barr.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, leaves it up to individual Democrats to pay attention to what other senators are asking and hopes they will pivot if someone else beats them to an issue.
“We have our staffs, and staffs compile questions. There’s a problem because you get a lot of stuff and you get a few minutes, and so you have to pick out [a few questions]. Then somebody before you might ask the question that you were intending to ask. So you have to be flexible and know and follow the questioning,” Feinstein said.
With so little coordination among senators on the same committee, it is not surprising to learn that there is even less cooperation across the Capitol with counterparts on House committees holding hearings on the same topics.
Graham said that he had not held any talks or discussions about his approach to the Barr hearing with Rep. Douglas A. Collins (Ga.), the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, even though the attorney general had been expected to testify before the House panel less than 24 hours after Graham’s committee had finished with him.
“Oh no,” Graham said of any talks with Collins or other House Republicans. “What would the upside of that be?”
After a couple of laughs, Graham complimented Collins: “He’s a wonderful man.”
Feinstein said that she has had some talks about the Mueller investigation with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. But, she added, “not really that much.”
Some junior members of committees think there should be more open lines of communication, particularly with their counterparts on the other side of the Capitol.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has opened up his own talks with Democratic counterparts on the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, knowing that they now have the chairmen’s gavels and subpoena power.
“We talk a lot among each other,” Blumenthal said, emphasizing that “it’s not a formal structure” but more an ability to share information about what their respective committees were doing.
On Wednesday, Blumenthal introduced legislation that would require campaign staffers to notify federal law enforcement officials if foreign agents approach a campaign offering political assistance. He worked on the legislation with Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Exchanging information with House Democrats, Blumenthal said, “is very important because of the insight it gives us into their thinking and the input we have into their thinking.”
However, that level of cooperation is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to big hearings and investigations.
With each committee member a free agent, the word “collusion” was invoked more than two dozen times at Wednesday’s hearing.
And the lack of coordination also regularly creates a sense of drift in some committee hearings.
With so much repetition, witnesses build up their comfort level as they answer the same questions repeatedly. The “Perry Mason moment” in which a witness crumbles rarely happens, and, instead, one side hopes that the overall weight of a hearing tilts in its favor.
Lawmakers, committee staffers and the media have a read on which members of Congress have questions that yield new information, sometimes waiting hours for other lawmakers to get through their five minutes before the smart members get their moment in the spotlight.
That moment came late in Wednesday’s hearing. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), a former district attorney and state attorney general, is the most junior Democrat on the committee but has quickly become known as a sharp questioner of witnesses.
She wasted no time with pleasantries or airing her own views and immediately hit Barr with a tough question: “Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone?”
The attorney general stammered for a few seconds, then asked her to repeat the question. She repeated the question, and then he repeated it, thinking aloud.
“Seems you’d remember something like that,” she said.
Her entire exchange was a set of rapid-fire questions that elicited some of the most damaging information — and it came many hours into a hearing on which neither side had coordinated all that much.