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Eckerd College political science professor examines the Jan. 6 hearings

By Tom Zucco
Published August 11, 2022
Categories: Academics, Political Science
U.S. Capitol building

Katti McNally, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science at Eckerd College, studies Congress and is the author of Representing the Disadvantaged: Group Interests and Legislator Reputation in U.S. Congress (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

For much of June and July, she paid close attention to the Jan. 6 congressional hearings. The U.S. House of Representatives voted a year ago to create a select committee to investigate the events of Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol Building. Urged on by former President Donald Trump, an estimated 10,000 rioters entered the Capitol grounds, and about 1,200 breached the building in an effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election won by Joe Biden.

A rioter was killed, a Capitol Police officer died the next day, 138 officers were injured, and nearly 800 people have been charged in relation to the attack. And according to Politico, at least 57 people who participated in the rally or the ensuing riot are currently running for public office.

The committee (seven Democrats, two Republicans) began a series of hearings June 9 that included live testimony from nearly 20 witnesses and recorded depositions from more than 50 others. McNally, who has watched all eight televised hearings, gives the committee high marks for doing something that seems relatively simple, but isn’t. “I think the committee has done a really impressive job of carrying out what they were charged to do, which was to investigate and report on the facts and circumstances and the causes relating to the interference of the peaceful transfer of power,” she says.

“To that end, I think it’s been absolutely remarkable. If you’ve ever watched the way a congressional hearing normally proceeds, this is a night-and-day difference. Most committee hearings are difficult to follow, a bit boring and involve a lot of grandstanding rather than asking questions.

“This has been stunning in how different it is from a normal congressional hearing. It’s truly been a collaborative effort, and it’s been focused on providing a collective front. Their presentation of new information that the investigation has uncovered has been extremely effective. And I expect that to continue.

“I also think they’ve done an impressive job of reporting to the public and of connecting the dots between all of the events, including before the election to put the plans in place to undermine the democratic process,” she adds. “It hasn’t been perfect, but if you judge the committee on what they were asked to do, they’ve been extremely effective and they’ve shown we face some truly daunting challenges to our democracy. And how close the Jan. 6 attempt came to overturning a democratic election.”

As for the question of how the committee will be perceived, McNally says that depends on how the goal is defined. “People will say this committee is successful only if there are broad, sweeping changes in public opinion, or only if Trump is indicted. I think that’s an unfair standard. This committee put forth an impressive effort in laying out the facts in a way that provides the tools for other people to take up the challenge, whether it be the Department of Justice or the media.”

Much of the credit for the committee’s ability to accomplish its mission, McNally says, should go to chairperson Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi) and vice chairperson Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming). “It’s rare for members of Congress to agree to put aside their own personal reelection interests, and leadership has a lot to do with that. The closest parallel to this is the Watergate hearings. But that was such a different moment in time.”

The committee is taking a break in August and will resume public hearings in September.

“What happens next,” McNally adds, “is going to be crucial. What will people do with this information? Especially the Department of Justice. What they decide to do will impact the future course of American democracy.”