Montana Viewpoint: Closed-door hearings ‘always produce better results’ … and protests

Jim Elliott

The worst thing about a congressional closed-door hearing is that the opposition does not get any press when they posture and pontificate on the unfairness of whatever.

The best thing about a closed-door hearing is that, “The private ones always produce better results.”

That’s not my opinion. It’s the opinion of former Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy, referring to criticism of his holding closed-door hearings on the Clinton-Benghazi issue.

I can attest to the fact that many politicians speak to get press attention. There was one Montana legislator, a portrayer of historical persons, who would visibly compose himself into a figure worthy of being paid attention to. When he was called upon in committee, he would inhale deeply, square his shoulders, turn towards whatever television camera was in the room and begin to utter profound and meaningless twaddle. When there were no cameras present, he asked questions and made statements just like everyone else. 

It is that very tendency of politicians to call attention to themselves in public meetings that makes Gowdy’s statement believable. [In Montana, except in very rare cases such as personnel matters, it is illegal for elected officials to conduct a closed-door meeting.]

Whereas during the Benghazi hearings it was the Democrats objecting to the private hearings, with the Ukraine hearings it is the Republicans who are objecting.

Recently, in a successful attempt to call attention to their grievances, 41 Republican congressmen stormed into a secure area of the Capitol to protest the “Soviet-style” nature of the hearings, claiming they just wanted a seat at the table. However, about 13 of the protesters did have a seat at the table. They could have walked through the hearing room door at any time because they were on one of the three committees (Intelligence, Oversight, and Foreign Affairs) conducting the hearings. If you were not on one of those committees, Republican or Democrat, you could not enter the hearing room.

There are 48 Republican members on the three committees, including the vice president’s brother, Greg Pence. That would be about one-quarter of the 197 Republicans in Congress. For comparison, 55 of the 234 Democrats in Congress are on the committees

Whether or not the Democrats are wise to hold those meetings in private I am not competent to judge, but they do have the right to do it. Whatever the Democrats said about the Benghazi committee I am sure is similar to what the Republicans are now saying about the Ukraine committee. Some of it stems from genuine concern, much of it is pure spin and propaganda and it shows. Politicians are good at not answering questions and even better at answering the question which they would have like to have been asked. 

I want to end this column on a positive note. I think it is important, in this politically divided time, to point out that Trey Gowdy, former Republican member of Congress and chair of the Benghazi investigation, and recently deceased Rep. Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland and former chair of the Oversight Committee, were good friends.

“We always tried to understand why each of us believed what we believed,” wrote Gowdy. Both men were born in South Carolina, Cummings the son of a black sharecropper, Gowdy the son of a doctor. Gowdy wrote a candid and moving article about their friendship which you can — and should — read. It was published in the Washington Post of October 18, 2019. Just enter a search for “Gowdy-Cummings friendship” and it will come up. 

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.