Modeling Effective Oversight: The January 6th Committee’s Investigation

Through its hearings and report, the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack (Jan. 6 Committee) vividly described the violent attempt at an insurrection perpetrated by former President Trump’s supporters. The Committee’s work exposed new facts, captured public attention with compelling hearings, and helped to preserve a record of a pivotal event. These characteristics, among others, suggest that the Committee has conducted “effective congressional oversight” under the leading definition of the phrase. 

  1. What Constitutes Effective Congressional Oversight?

            Few have researched exactly how to determine if a Congressional investigation had been effective.[1] However, Former Senator Carl Levin and his long-serving investigative counsel Elise Bean set out four guidelines to help establish an objectively measurable standard.[2]  They suggest evaluating an investigation’s quality, its bipartisanship, credibility, and impact on policy.

            First, an investigation’s quality can be observed in its subject’s importance to the public, the techniques investigators used, the information they uncovered, and the degree to which the investigating entity’s members reached a consensus on the facts.[3]

            Second, bipartisan investigations occur when each side of the aisle issues shared requests for interviews/documents, jointly recommends reforms, agrees on key facts, or holds press conferences together, among other factors.[4] Bipartisanship can also be measured by the investigation’s characterizations in the media and among interest groups or the public.[5]

            Third, an investigation can be considered credible when it is treated as such by members of Congress, other branches of government, the public, the media, or relevant interest groups.[6]

            Lastly, Levin and Bean suggest contemplating whether an investigation had a tangible effect on public policy.[7]They consider if the investigators offered or made policy, if its members tried to encourage reforms, or if actual changes resulted from the investigation’s findings.[8]

II. Did the Jan. 6th Committee Investigate Effectively?

            The Jan. 6th Committee faced an undoubtedly complex assignment from the outset. Its work touched on broader themes of election securityexecutive branch misconduct, and a threat to the country’s democratic system. It also attempted to untangle the chaotic riot at the Capitol, as it sought to determine who bears responsibility for that day. 

  1. Quality 

The Committee’s investigation focused on events of significant importance to the public, a key part of a quality undertaking according to Levin and Bean.[9] Any attack on the Federal Government’s seat of power warrants investigation, especially one where hundreds were injured and several died.  Furthermore, the riot’s root causes will not remedy themselves without policy interventions. 

            The Committee also uncovered several previously unknown facts about the events surrounding Jan. 6th. For instance, the Committee heard powerful testimony from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson in its hearings over the summer. Ms. Hutchinson testified that former President Trump knew his supporters were armed when he incited them to march to the Capitol. She also quoted her boss, then Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, as saying that Trump didn’t want to do anything about the calls for violence against former Vice President Pence. 

While it is not possible to summarize the entirety of the Committee’s work in this brief medium, each of its hearings tended to produce similarly significant and newsworthy developments. In a departure from other Congressional investigations, the January 6th Committee’s hearings were each narrowly focused and tightly scheduled. Their well edited videos, highly choreographed interviews, and overall “made for tv” style lent the hearings some staying power in the news cycle.  

            The Committee’s final report indicated that its members have reached a general consensus on the facts. The members voted to refer former President Trump to the DOJ for possible criminal charges including Obstruction of an Official Proceeding and Conspiracy to Defraud the United States, among others. Some staffers reportedly pushed back on the report’s focus on former President Trump at the expense of other serious issues, but no substantive disagreements emerged publicly among the Members while releasing the report. 

  • Bipartisanship

            Establishing a bipartisan investigation has been a challenge for the Committee. While it has two Republicans in its ranks, they have been censured by the GOP for their participation. Each also faced political consequences. Rep. Kinzinger chose to retire from the House, and Rep. Cheney lost her primary election. 

            It would be unwarranted, however, to suggest that this has impacted the effectiveness of the investigation. To the contrary, the investigation’s integrity would have suffered if Speaker Pelosi acquiesced to the GOP and included former President Trump’s most outspoken defenders, like Rep. Jim Jordan. Rep. Jordan himself was deeply involved in efforts to overturn the election. He also communicated with the Former President on the day of the riot, though he claimed he cannot remember how many times they spoke. He also refused to cooperate with the Committee’s efforts, ignoring a Congressional subpoena. Adding voices like his to the Jan. 6th Committee would have only served to disrupt the investigation’s focus.

            The committee has instead been unified on its major decisions, including a vote to subpoena former President Trump. Reps Cheney (the vice-chair) and Kinzinger have been prominent members, heavily involved in both the investigation and the media relations surrounding it. As mentioned previously, the Committee also voted together on criminal referrals and the report’s release. 

            The investigation was fueled primarily by testimony from Republicans. Many of former President Trump’s aides came forward to discuss Jan. 6th and the events preceding it. Cabinet members and others who held influential posts in the administration also offered key testimony. So while, the Committee may not have been able to structure itself in a typical bipartisan fashion, it would not have gotten far without Republican contributions

  • Credibility

            Any consideration of the Committee’s credibility must be done with the country’s current political context in mind. A substantial portion of the United States’ population remains convinced that the election was stolen from former President Trump. The Committee’s work will never be viewed credibly in this segment of the electorate, no matter the investigation’s quality. This includes members of Congress, a few of whom helped to rile up the crowd before the riot. Therefore, other sources should be considered to get a less biased sense of the Committee’s credibility.

             The Committee’s members seem to view their work as important and have generally taken their job seriously. Many witnesses have cooperated with the Committee, producing documents and testimony in vast quantities, albeit under subpoena on occasion. Some of those who have not cooperated, like Steve Bannon, have faced Contempt of Congress charges after criminal referral to the DOJ. While such prosecutions may not necessarily point to the committee’s credibility, they do represent an acknowledgement of the body’s legitimacy by another federal agency.  

            The committee’s hearings have been thoroughly covered in the media, regularly securing air time on the nation’s major cable news providers. The Committee also enjoyed majority support in some public polling. That said, the Committee’s work has not necessarily changed minds. The stark political divisions surrounding the events on Jan. 6th remain. 

  • Impact on Policy

            It may be difficult to evaluate the Jan. 6th Committee’s work according to a traditional understanding of policy impact. The Committee’s work has not been received favorably in the Republican controlled House of Representatives. Immediately after Republicans took power, the Committee was dissolved. As such, it is unlikely that most of the report’s voluminous recommendations on election security, violent extremism, and Capitol Police oversight will be enacted anytime soon. The Committee did make several criminal referrals to the Department of Justice as it began to wind down. The DOJ may yet bring additional charges, but its investigation remains ongoing

            One legislative reform did manage to make its way through Congress before power in the House changed hands. President Biden signed reforms to the Electoral Count Act into law recently. This bill clarified that the Vice President’s role in election certification is purely ceremonial. It also increased the number of legislators necessary to stop Congress from ratifying the vote. These changes will prevent much of the legal maneuvering former President Trump’s supporters used to attempt to throw out the election results.

            Even if its report does not prompt further policy changes in the short term, the Committee has still been impactful. Preserving a record of the events of Jan. 6th carries with it an inherent value, as some of Trump’s supporters continue to deny and obfuscate the truth of what happened that day. A consolidated, official account from a House Committee makes it more difficult to reframe the events before and during the January 6 insurrection as something other than what they were: a deliberate, criminal attempt to subvert the will of the American people. 

[1] Senator Carl Levin and Elise Bean, Defining Congressional Oversight and Measuring Its Effectiveness, 64 Wayne L. Rev. 1, 17. (2018). 

[2] Id at 18.

[3] Id.

[4] Id at 20. 

[5] Id. 

[6] Id at 21. 

[7]  Id at 22.

[8]  Id at 22. 

[9] Id at 18.