High-profile congressional hearings can go one of two ways. They can follow the course of the Watergate hearings of the 1970s, which led to the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency and inspired sweeping campaign finance and election reforms. Or they can go the way of the Iran/Contra hearings of the 1980s, which let Ronald Reagan off the hook and did little to alter corrupt US foreign policies.
The televised hearings of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the US Capitol, which begin this week, have drawn comparisons with the historic Senate Watergate hearings of 1973. But they could just as easily turn into a reprise of the muddled Iran/Contra hearings of 1987, which, in turn, could undermine the cause of accountability—and democracy.
Starting Thursday with a prime-time extravaganza, the January 6 committee is expected to establish that the assault on the Capitol was a coup attempt urged on by former President Donald Trump. US Representative Jamie Raskin, the Maryland Democrat who led the effort to impeach and remove Trump after the assault, and who now serves as a key member of the House special committee, suggests that the hearings will provide “a lot of very specific detail about what the president knew and understood at different points as these events unfolded.”
The hearings will, Raskin suggests, provide powerful evidence that “Donald Trump and the White House were at the center of these events.”
But what will be done with that information?
While a detailing of Trump’s complicity will surely be compelling, the question is whether the committee will do anything more than entertain a country that experienced a deadly assault on democracy in 2021, and that could face another coup attempt in 2025. The answer to that question will come in the form of recommendations from the committee, which must err on the side of both accountability and meaningful change—such as the disempowering of the Electoral College.
Unfortunately, media reports suggest that Wyoming US Representative Liz Cheney, the key Republican on the committee, is wary of making bold recommendations. That’s an unsettling prospect, because the committee must go big in order to avert the next Capitol riot.
On the accountability side, the House members need to recommend congressional action clearly affirming that Trump and his co-conspirators will never again be allowed to threaten US democracy. The way to do this is with a finding by the committee, and an ensuing affirmation by the House and Senate, that Trump and his insurrectionist allies violated Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, which states:
No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.
This vital accountability action would allow the committee to clarify that the politicians who organized an attempt to steal one election can’t position themselves to successfully steal the next one.
Barring the former president and other insurrectionists from again seeking office only addresses one side of the equation, however. It does not prevent the next Trump from gaming a system that Republicans are determined to use to their advantage. That’s why the reform agenda that comes from the committee must include a plan to eliminate—or, at the least, neutralize—the Electoral College.
Never forget that Donald Trump lost the popular vote in 2020 by more than 7 million ballots, just as he lost it in 2016 by roughly 3 million ballots. In any other democratic republic, he wouldn’t have gotten near the White House. And he certainly would not have been afforded an opportunity to cling to power.
But because the archaic Electoral College system allows the loser to “win,” Trump made a big deal about close contests in a handful of battleground states—Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, in particular—where electoral votes were up for grabs. Trump’s contesting of results from those states framed his objection to the 2020 results, and his call to insurrection.
Doing away with the institution would end the tyranny of the battleground states and allow the United States to have nationwide elections in which every vote counts equally. Raskin understands this. That’s why the congressman—who refers to the Electoral College as an “undemocratic relic of the early Constitution, just like the state legislatures’ selection of U.S. Senators, which we got rid of in 1913”—has long advocated for steps that would upend the Electoral College.
A constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College would do that. But amendments are a heavy lift. That’s one of the reasons Raskin has advocated for the bipartisan National Popular Vote initiative, a multistate compact, under which states pledge to assign their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote nationwide. The compact takes effect only when states with a majority of the nation’s electoral votes—270 or more—have signed on. So far, 15 states and the District of Columbia, with a combined 195 electoral votes, have agreed to the compact.
Raskin now says, “I think we have to look very seriously at whether there are going to be more attempts by bad-faith strategic actors to exploit the many different steps along the way in the Electoral College to keep revisiting or threatening the popular results.”
But the committee does not appear to be united when it comes to addressing threats to democracy.
Cheney, an anti-Trump conservative who faces a tough reelection primary in August, “flatly opposes some of the more sweeping election law reforms backed by several committee Democrats,” according to Axios. In a scoop over the weekend, the news website revealed: “The broadest differences are between Cheney and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), according to three sources familiar with the committee’s private discussions. The two have a warm personal relationship but fundamentally disagree on what needs to be done to reform America’s election laws.”
That’s a big deal, as Democrats on the committee think they need Cheney to put a “bipartisan” label on any recommendations for reform. Unfortunately, Cheney is not inclined toward the reforms that are urgently needed.
“Cheney thinks the committee will burn its credibility if it pushes for radical changes like abolishing the Electoral College, according to a source with direct knowledge,” reports Axios. “She also has joked to her colleagues on the committee that there’s no way the single at-large representative for the tiny state of Wyoming would support abolishing the Electoral College, according to another source with direct knowledge of the internal committee deliberations.”
But this isn’t a joke.
The January 6 committee cannot simply catalogue Trump’s sins, which most Americans are well aware of. The committee has to produce meaningful recommendations that disqualify Trump and avert Trumpism. That means that, no matter what Liz Cheney says, its recommendations must disqualify Trump and upend the Electoral College.