As Wednesday’s House Oversight Committee’s Michael Cohen hearing approached its conclusion, the proceedings were looking like a lost opportunity.
For hours Republicans pressed Cohen on his motivations, having seemingly convinced themselves that he had committed a decade-long series of criminal acts so he could get a sweet book deal after his stint in federal prison. The Democrats, meanwhile, wasted most of their time on speeches, hypotheticals and performative outrage.
It was, in short, like almost every congressional hearing ever.
But then the freshman congresswomen took the floor. Katie Hill, D-Calif., asked the most detailed questions about the campaign-finance fraud involving Stormy Daniels. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., pressed Cohen to lay the groundwork for potential subpoenas of Donald Trump’s state taxes and Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., dealt in detail with the Trump Foundation.
This was their first prominent hearing. How were these freshmen so much better prepared to do their actual jobs than representatives with decades more experience?
My theory is that freshman women didn’t show up to the Cohen hearing to be seen working; they showed up to work. They weren’t grandstanding for the cameras, because they carry “the cameras” in their pockets. They can pull out their phones and reach more people in 30 seconds than C-SPAN can reach in a year.
What we saw Wednesday was the glorious upside of having elected officials who use social media to reach their constituents and therefore do not have to rely on legacy media giving them good B-roll to play on the local news.
Ocasio-Cortez has 2.6 million followers on Instagram. She has 3.3 million followers on Twitter. In contrast, Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has 5,017 Instagram followers and 301,000 followers on Twitter. I’m not forgetting a zero.
If Ocasio-Cortez wants to show off her dance moves, she doesn’t need cable. When she is on cable, she’s there to work. Her questions to Cohen were precise, surgical even. There are tons of people with law degrees in Congress, but Ocasio-Cortez, the former bartender who couldn’t afford to go to law school, drew some of the highest praises from “Lawyer Twitter” for her witness examination.
The reach and impact of social media is still a relatively new phenomenon, and older officials look so inauthentic because they haven’t adjusted. Take Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. Trump Tower is literally in her district. She asked Cohen to describe “catch and kill,” which is something both she and people at home can Google. It elicited a long answer, which wasted her time. But wasted time was still time on camera.
For most representatives, a major hearing is their only way to be seen by Americans outside of their districts. Even their constituents might not really know what they’re up to until they see them on a television news report of a high-profile hearing.
Pop quiz: When was the last time you saw Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., before the Cohen hearing? I’d forgotten she existed since 2016.
For most congresspeople, their five minutes of “question” time is actually three minutes of “hey, lookit me, I’m a person with hopes and dreams,” followed by a minute of “now in my state, we don’t/do take kindly to this/that,” closing with a minute of “vote for me soon!”
Wasserman-Schultz followed this pattern. She started out, “As you likely know, I served as chair of the Democratic National Committee at the time of the Russian hacks.” Yeah, we know. “But I want to be clear, my questions are not about the harm done to any individual.” Then she asked Cohen a bunch of “is it possible,” “could it be,” “do you believe” and “is it likely” type questions, which produce no actionable information.
The freshmen, meanwhile, put their shoutouts on social. They put their speeches on social. They have a staffer shoot video of them working or studying or ordering pizza at the Capitol, and put that on social. Social is how they connect with their base.
Social media might be the first thing to counter the “C-SPAN Effect” (the way that televised hearings just lead to more bombast) in the 40 years since that network started broadcasting live congressional hearings. If more elected leaders see social media as their way to reach constituents, instead of congressional cameras, we might see the end of fiery speeches delivered to an empty hearing room. We might see the end of questions designed to promote the congressperson instead of actually eliciting new truths. At the very least, we might see the end of completely inane opening statements.
None of this is to diminish the skill, intelligence and preparation that Hill, Ocasio-Cortez, Pressly and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., displayed during their time. Just because you have social-media prowess doesn’t mean you’ll use your powers for good: We have seen the dystopian side of direct access to voters without the filter of legacy media, and it’s called Donald Trump. The freshman congresswomen are using social media to enhance their work and their abilities. Others will use it to mask their failures and deficiencies.
But if we can get a new crop of politicians with dignity and decency who also know how to reach the people through social media, maybe they’ll be a little less thirsty for the cameras when it’s time to do the people’s work.
Social media has been blamed for so much of what is wrong with our politics. Maybe this is one thing that social media is getting right.
Elie Mystal is the executive editor of Above the Law and the legal editor of More Perfect. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.