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Measuring the Success of the January 6 Congressional Hearings

The House committee must expose and repudiate the ongoing efforts to undermine American elections and lay the groundwork needed to protect the will of the people in the future.

Thursday night in the first of a series of public hear­ings, the House Select Commit­tee to Invest­ig­ate the Janu­ary 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol will begin to outline the evid­ence of a multi­pronged effort to viol­ently disrupt the peace­ful trans­fer of power and over­turn the will of the people.

Assum­ing the evid­ence collec­ted by the commit­tee is as strong as has been repor­ted so far, there will be right­ful calls for prosec­u­tion of the lead­ers, includ­ing those who were in the highest echel­ons of govern­ment. But the import of Congress’s invest­ig­a­tion goes well beyond hold­ing the perpet­rat­ors crim­in­ally account­able. First and fore­most, it is crit­ical for Congress to facil­it­ate a thor­ough public reck­on­ing with the full scope and sever­ity of the attack on our nation’s demo­cratic insti­tu­tions — so that it is thor­oughly repu­di­ated and can never happen again.

The commit­tee’s invest­ig­a­tion is the most consequen­tial congres­sional invest­ig­a­tion in decades. The Janu­ary 6 assault was one of the worst attacks on Amer­ican govern­ment in over a century. The scheme included an unpre­ced­en­ted viol­ent attack on the Capitol, involving white suprem­acist and other extrem­ist groups, but it was much more than that. It star­ted well before Elec­tion Day in 2020, with racially targeted attempts to intim­id­ate and disen­fran­chise voters and bids to sow confu­sion and general distrust in the voting process. It contin­ued with concer­ted efforts after Elec­tion Day to get state offi­cials to change or reject popu­lar elec­tion results, dozens of frivol­ous lawsuits seek­ing to have courts toss out votes or other­wise over­turn results, and a push to convince members of Congress and Vice Pres­id­ent Mike Pence to reject lawful elect­oral votes. The climax was a viol­ent assault on the seat of Amer­ican demo­cracy. The commit­tee is expec­ted to expose this conspir­acy — and the extent to which it contin­ues — in extens­ive detail.

Congres­sional invest­ig­a­tions are an integ­ral part of the legis­lat­ive process. Congress, courts have long held, “is meant to be the eyes and the voice” of the public. It has broad power to gather inform­a­tion that will help it identify prob­lems in need of legis­lat­ive remed­ies and ensure that exist­ing laws are prop­erly carried out. At crit­ical moments, as a bipar­tisan pair of senat­ors wrote in their book about the Iran-Contra invest­ig­a­tion in the 1980s, it falls to Congress to “drag real­it­ies out into the sunlight and demand a full account­ing from those who are permit­ted to hold and exer­cise power.” This sunlight is a vital prerequis­ite to moving forward.

The Janu­ary 6 commit­tee has pursued this mission zeal­ously. Commit­tee staff have so far inter­viewed over 1,000 witnesses and reviewed tens of thou­sands of pages of docu­ments. As another bipar­tisan group of former offi­cials noted — includ­ing several members of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion — the invest­ig­a­tion “demon­strated a deep commit­ment to find­ing the truth and focused on the facts.” To ensure a thor­ough and fair eval­u­ation of the facts, the commit­tee employed dozens of profes­sional staff, includ­ing invest­ig­at­ors from all polit­ical back­grounds. Addi­tion­ally, it is being managed by a bipar­tisan lead­er­ship, with Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyom­ing, previ­ously the third-rank­ing House Repub­lican, serving as the commit­tee’s vice chair and work­ing closely with Demo­cratic lead­er­ship.

This thor­ough­ness and impar­ti­al­ity are crit­ical because the court of public opin­ion is the prin­cipal venue. Perhaps the most import­ant meas­ure of the success of the hear­ings will be the extent to which they foster a shared under­stand­ing of what really happened lead­ing up to, on, and follow­ing Janu­ary 6. The facts need to be laid out. Wrong­do­ers — not just those who stormed the Capitol but those who instig­ated the attack — need to be publicly held to account and their actions unam­bigu­ously repu­di­ated. And solu­tions need to be considered.

It is also imper­at­ive to lay out ongo­ing threats. Here too, the hear­ings will be essen­tial. The same forces that unleashed the Janu­ary 6 attack threaten to sabot­age future elec­tions, intim­id­at­ing elec­tion offi­cials, moving to make it easier to manip­u­late or even set aside elec­tion results, and target­ing voters for disen­fran­chise­ment — primar­ily voters of color. These ongo­ing threats need to be named and blocked. And ulti­mately, Congress must estab­lish stronger legis­lat­ive guard­rails to ensure that they don’t recur.

The prin­cipal meas­ure of success for the Janu­ary 6 commit­tee will be the extent to which it exposes the recent and ongo­ing plots to under­mine Amer­ican elec­tions and lays the found­a­tion for future solu­tions. In uncov­er­ing the truth, the hear­ings will reaf­firm that we are a nation of laws, not mob rule, and that the Amer­ican people must have the final say on who wields power.