In 2023, just as in 2022, a select committee of the House of Representatives held its first hearing in primetime and discussed a topic that everyone in the room agreed on.
In 2022, the January 6 committee laid out its basic theory of the case about the attack on the Capitol spurred by Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. It laid out the broad sweep of the efforts by Trump and his allies in a well-crafted presentation that presented good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains.
On Tuesday, the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party undertook a similar effort. It laid out the sweep of challenges presented by the Chinese government and presented its basic theory of the case: that, as former national security adviser H.R. McMaster argued, President Xi Jinping’s China poses a greater threat than the Soviet Union during the Cold War but that the United States can still fend off China and preserve global stability with prompt bipartisan action.
Yet while both hearings were Manichaean in how they addressed their respective topics, they could have taken place on different planets. The January 6 select committee was a polished, made-for-television presentation that was designed to persuade viewers at home not to believe everything that Fox News told them about Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. It was as much an effort to make an argument to the public as it was to uncover new facts about the fall and winter of 2020.
The CCP select committee was also making an argument, but not to the public — members of Congress were trying to sell each other. As Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-MA) told Vox, “I think the initial audience is Congress; we’ve got to build shared awareness within Congress and build shared conviction around priorities within Congress.”
The format of the committee hearing seemed to emphasize that fact — it wasn’t made for primetime, it was made for C-SPAN. It was formatted like any other congressional hearing, with members each taking five minutes for questions of the witnesses. However, unlike most other congressional hearings, members actually used most of their time for questioning.
Yet the threat the committee worried about wasn’t that many members are unconvinced about the challenges that the Chinese Communist Party presents — it was set up by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, and there is broad consensus on China policy in Washington, with a handful of exceptions. Instead, the threat was partisanship itself. The worry was that members would give up the unrewarding, if nourishing, work of legislation and instead embrace the sugar highs of cable news hits for partisan audiences. Members were self-aware of this risk and how much it could undermine their objective. As Rep. Darin LaHood (R-IL) argued during the hearing, “the CCP fears more than anything Republicans and Democrats working together to expose [its] malign activities.”
The committee was set up to avoid such temptations, with members ranging from longtime Bernie Sanders ally Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) to Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), the founder of the congressional Anti-Woke Caucus, all of whom mostly stuck to the game plan. As Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD) marveled to Vox afterward, “It’s remarkable to me out of 24 questioners, I think for 90 percent of them, you couldn’t have told whether the questioner was a Democrat or Republican.”
The question is whether that can continue in a time when almost everything in the United States, including what type of stove you use to cook dinner, has become politicized.
Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), the chair of the committee, told Vox before the hearing began, “I’m cautiously optimistic we can at least preserve a center of bipartisan gravity. If you look at the polling, the American people, Democrats and Republicans, are increasingly concerned about the Chinese Communist Party. And so it’s not like we’re going against the grain of American public opinion — we have to sort of build upon that and convince our colleagues as to here’s a coherent legislative plan of action going forward.”
However, there were always temptations being posed. After the committee hearing gaveled to a close, Ivan Raiklin, an ally of Mike Flynn, the former Trump national security adviser turned conspiracy theorist, approached members with copies of a “Report on the Biden Laptop.” But no one seemed to bite. At least for now, the committee was sticking to the straight and narrow.