Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of the American government is the amount of openness it exhibits when compared to other countries. This openness results in the Founders’ belief that in order to function, representative democracy must be accountable to the people it governs. If the openness is circumvented, it is clearly cause for concern; thus, when certain facts began to surface that the Executive Branch may have taken illegal actions in supplying aid to the Contras of Nicaragua, and then took further illegal actions to cover it up, Congress felt that it was its duty to expose the truth of the matter to the American public. In striving to uncover the facts, however, Congress was forced to confront the very openness it was trying to provide, ultimately hurting the investigation.
The Committee designated to conduct the Iran-Contra hearings decided to hold public hearings, and allow these hearings to be televised. Members of the Committee hoped public hearings would provide an atmosphere of openness and candor, and allow the American public a chance to see exactly what the Committee was seeing. However, the Committee failed to account for the effect that broadcasting the hearings would have on the investigation.
One of the first mistakes the Committee made in the hearings in regard to television was the seating arrangement; the members, while arranged to maximize the space the room provided, inadvertently set themselves up to resemble “the equivalent of Roman potentates turning thumbs up or thumbs down on the stoic Christians who would be dragged before [them] to give testimony,” (Cohen, p. 53-54.) The members of the Committee also failed to account for their own appearances on television, and were not able to anticipate the sympathy the viewing public would have for many of the good-looking witnesses who would testify, including the “girl-next-door” Fawn Hall, and the war hero Oliver North.
As the hearings continued, Committee members received a massive amount of mail from their constituents; much of this mail included condemnation of the Committee for harassing the previously mentioned witnesses. These complaints, however, were largely based on appearances; the Committee, sitting above the chamber floor and composed mostly of older men, did not look as good as the witnesses did, especially when the questions posed by the Committee seemed unfair to the witnesses.
The Committee found itself in an awkward position: the openness that they desired in the hearings was distracting the public from the focus of the investigation; appearance became more important than substance. The fact that Oliver North had repeatedly lied to Congress was not as important in the public’s eye as the impression that the Committee was questioning him with unnecessary harshness. This distraction from substance could have been avoided if the Committee had held closed hearings; closed hearings, however, would have led to more secrecy, and caused even more problems.
Ideally, a special investigating Committee should operate with the public in mind, but without worrying about constituent pressures. If questions are not asked because a member feels it will reflect negatively on him or her at home, the investigation could seriously be compromised. Constituent pressures will always play a factor, however; the one thing every Congress member wants is to be re-elected, and that is impossible if he or she alienates too many constituents. A body that does not need to worry about re-election would clearly be a better choice to investigate Executive transgressions; the US Supreme Court is one such body. With an already overloaded schedule, however, asking the Supreme Court to investigate events such as the Iran-Contra scandal would be unfair and counter-productive.
Unfortunately, no alternative to congressional hearings is readily apparent. Members of Congress must always be answerable to constituents, but they must also be willing to lay aside concerns about popularity in order to pursue investigations important to the country. Ultimately, Members on these special Committees are acting as judges, and therefore must be impartial, in regards to both party and constituency. A good Committee, then, will be composed of Members who accept this fact. While the Members composing the Iran-Contra Committee at first were unable to live up to the requirements the Committee put on them, they ultimately managed to delve deeply into the matter, and deliver judgements based on what they found, not what an appearance-obsessed public dictated.