Questioning Discipline in Congress

At the start of the Cohen hearing earlier this week, presiding congressman Elijah Cummings said the House Oversight Committee was in search of the truth.

But as the hearing showed, many of his colleagues found it hard to stick to the script.

Caroline Fredrickson, the president of the American Constitution Society, wrote In an opinion piece in The New York Times:

“… instead of asking probing questions and eliciting damning evidence from Mr. Cohen, too many committee members chose to make a speech.”

In her article, she referenced Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker, who tweeted in frustration:

“Bipartisan incompetence in the questioning at #cohen hearing. All they do is make speeches, and fail to listen to answers or follow up.”

Was it effective? It all depends on what you’re after.

One thing is certain: making political statements typically doesn’t help you get closer to the truth. If your desired outcome is to have a roadmap for further investigation, you need to elicit information that can help corroborate the testimony - especially when it concerns someone with credibility issues.

As I explained in a previous blog, effective questioning requires discipline. In most situations, it’s best to keep your questions simple and focused on their intended purpose.

Fredrickson noted one positive exception in the Cohen hearing, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

Like a good prosecutor, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was establishing the factual basis for further committee investigation. She asked one question at a time, avoided long-winded speeches on why she was asking the question, and listened carefully to his answer, which gave her the basis for a follow-up inquiry.

The congresswoman from New York earned widespread praise for her performance, and as GQ noted: “… she didn’t even need all five of her allotted minutes.”

In a cheerful tweet, Ocasio-Cortez attributed her effective questioning skills to her previous life as a bartender and waitress. "Forces you to get great at reading people + hones a razor-sharp BS detector.”

But of course, that’s not the whole story. She later retweeted a HuffPost article, which describes how she thoroughly prepared for this moment together with her team.

You can watch the result right here.