Tancredo: Ban Live Coverage of Oversight, Investigations Hearings

Posted May 13, 2004 at 11:02am

Asserting that televised Congressional hearings inspire some lawmakers to “political posturing,” Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) called Tuesday for a ban on live coverage of all oversight and investigations hearings.

In a letter to House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), Tancredo cited recent hearings held by both the Senate and House Armed Services panels on allegations of prisoner abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

“I believe the fact that these hearings were aired on live television contributed to an atmosphere more conducive to a political rally or street demonstration than to one of genuine oversight and investigation,” Tancredo wrote in the May 11 letter, which he also sent to House Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) and Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “Consequently, I believe that Congress should examine the practice of permitting televised oversight hearings.”

In addition to criticizing fellow Members — whom Tancredo condemned for using “the majority of their time not to ask probative questions of witnesses, but to deliver prepared statements laced with partisan rhetoric” — the Colorado lawmaker also cited several protestors who were removed from the Senate hearing for disruptive behavior.

“As a general rule, the public has a right to know what Congressional Committees are doing,” Tancredo wrote. “By the same token, Congress has a duty to the public to ensure that oversight hearings and investigations do not simply become forums for opportunistic politicians who cannot resist the urge to grandstand.”

Tancredo’s spokesman, Carlos Espinosa, said the lawmaker has not received an official response to his letter, but said in a conversation on the House floor, Tancredo received “a better-than-expected response” from the House Administration chairman.

In response, Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the House Administration Committee, said Thursday: “The chairman believes the American people should have access to their Representatives.”

In a written statement, Walsh added that the chairman would work with the Colorado Republican to see if security measures could be added to reduce disruptions, such as those caused at the Senate hearing on May 7. (A Capitol Police spokesman noted last week that the protestors were escorted from the hearing, but not charged in the incident.)

“While the chairman shares Mr. Tancredo’s disgust with those who break the law and disrupt Congressional hearings, he believes that arresting these individuals and prosecuting them to the fullest extent of the law is a more appropriate response rather than shutting down access to the Congress for millions of Americans,” Walsh said. “He believes the American people have a right to see their Representatives at work and that right should not be threatened because of the unlawful and disrespectful actions of a select few.”

Espinosa noted that the Colorado lawmaker’s request would provide print media continued access to hearings and would not eliminate live television coverage from all hearings. In his letter, Tancredo suggested televised hearings would follow a set of rules similar to those governing federal judicial hearings, which are televised on a limited basis.

“I hope that your committee will take a hard look at approaching this issue the same way, focusing on how to best protect the integrity of the legislative process,” Tancredo wrote.

While the first Congressional hearing was broadcast in 1947 — when then-Secretary of State George Marshall appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — the first widely viewed hearings did not air until 1950, when the Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce held hearings in 14 major cities during a 15-month period.

Associate Senate Historian Donald Ritchie noted that while the Republican-led House held its own televised hearings during the 80th and 83rd Congresses, the chamber largely prohibited any televised events, with the exception of the State of the Union address, until the early 1970s. The prohibition, dictated by then-Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas), came to be known as “Rayburn’s Rule.”