A Path From Travesty to Truth in Congressional Hearings

PHOTO: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius turns to speak to an aide during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 30, 2013.

Watching the Congressional hearing yesterday where Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified about the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, I was struck by the reality of how far Congress (and Washington, D.C., in general) has moved from the search for the truth, and a goal to really understand and fix problems.

It is not new to say Washington has become a culture of scoring points, avoiding fouls, hacking the opposition, and trying to "win the game." It is far removed from finding out what the truth really is, addressing the needs and hopes of average Americans and conversing in a place where you trust the other person's intentions.

And that fact was on full display at this Sebelius hearing. Let's review it from all angles.

First, Secretary Sebelius (like many folks who have come before her) seemed to have the main goal of dodging the hacks by the opposition and avoiding any fouls. And this is advice most DC-based consultants seem to give when preparing someone to testify, and then reward them with praise if they succeed on this PR goal. It isn't about what's the best way to get the truth across or to best fix the process, it's about repairing image and trying to make it through without a mistake.

Second, the Republicans yesterday on the committee were not only ill-prepared, but many were downright rude. I don't exactly know how it helps them politically, or to get to real answers, to treat someone with disrespect and to constantly interrupt. It certainly doesn't cause any non Kool-Aid drinking viewers to listen to what they might be asking.

I have always been taught that a hard question, asked politely and gently, gets closer to the truth and actually might help someone. I understand most Republican representatives on the Committee are posturing for the camera and grandstanding for partisans outside the room, but it doesn't further their cause of shining a spotlight on problems of Obamacare and trying to help Americans understand.

Third, Democrats on the Committee equally weren't helpful in getting to the truth. As always happens on this in DC, the party which is the same as the person testifying merely becomes a cheerleader for whatever talking points they have been handed. And really does anyone take cheerleaders seriously? Using their questions to elicit real answers would be much better for Democrats and more effective than just lauding Obamacare.

So how do we fix this other than trying to totally change the culture in Washington, D.C., and starting over? I would suggest one small but important fix.

Committee hearings where a huge number of folks get four minutes to question the person before them while using three and half of those minutes for theater and 30 seconds for Sebelius to respond (while getting interrupted in that half minute) just doesn't work.

Politicians should let go of their egos (on both sides of the aisle) and drop the need to demonstrate they are somebody. Let go of the need for theater and to hear the sound of their own voices. The leaders of both sides of the aisle should come together and decide that the time at these type of committee hearings should be spent in an earnest search for the truth. And once some of that truth is revealed, let the American public decide for themselves, and then everyone can figure out how to address the needs and problems.

So my proposal would be for each side of the aisle to cede their questioning to one very qualified person to methodically go through a real question and answer period with whomever is testifying. Let each side have a couple hours to try and uncover what the truth might be, and let someone like Secretary Sebelius have time to answer questions. This would give much more time for follow-ups, and Sebelius might be freed to actually give thoughtful answers to questions without worrying about the PR of the answer.

Just a thought, but it seems to me both political parties, the media and the American public would benefit more from this type of exchange. It might not take the grandstanding totally out of it, but at least by giving all the time to two knowledgeable folks to ask the questions, we might actually stumble onto the truth more often. And people in Washington might realize that most wisdom is gained through the ears and not the mouth.

There you have it.

Matthew Dowd is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent.

Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.

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