Some members of Congress read their questions from prepared scripts during hearings. Others veer off into non sequiturs or ask ill-conceived questions that witnesses clearly cannot be expected to answer.
But that’s not Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The freshman Democrat from New York, in Congress for less than six months, has become appointment viewing when she takes over the questioning in her committee hearings — and for good reason. She is on point and relentless to get what she’s after.
In one hearing on the census, she left Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross tongue-tied with questions about how and why he added a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Video of the grilling went viral, with one commenter on YouTube calling her performance a “Wilburectomy.”
Lawmakers may be judged on their voting records, but it’s their appearances in committee hearings where they have a chance to shine by framing debates and making witnesses squirm.
“I find her questioning to be thoughtful, rooted in facts, statistics, to make an overarching point,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean, Pennsylvania Democrat and a fellow freshman. “I think she’s a skilled questioner.”
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez sits on the House Financial Services Committee and the Oversight and Reform Committee, giving her a wide range of targets, though many of her viewers are conservatives who tune in to chuckle.
When Michael Cohen, the onetime personal attorney to President Trump, appeared before the oversight committee before heading to prison for fraud and lying to Congress, most panel members used their five minutes of questions as a chance to argue about crimes and impeachment.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, however, used her time to ask pointed questions of Mr. Trump’s former fixer on the financial details of Mr. Trump’s businesses and where Congress had to look to find the answers he couldn’t provide.
“Would it help for the committee to obtain federal and state tax returns from the president and his company to address that discrepancy?” she asked as a finale.
“I believe so,” Cohen replied.
News outlets praised the interrogation. The New York Times declared that she “won” the hearing, and Vanity Fair described it as “a financial colonoscopy.”
“What makes her so effective is that she actually asks questions instead of making a speech. She is very methodical. It reminds me of a good trial lawyer,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat and senior liberal who also serves on the oversight panel.
During a hearing on campaign laws, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez used the panel of witnesses as a foil by compelling them to play a “lightning round” of speed questions and answers. She got them to explain how a campaign could be funded entirely by political action committees supported by secret donations.
She dubbed it the “Corruption Game.” It became the most-viewed Twitter video of any politician ever, reported NowThis News.
“So we have a system that is fundamentally broken,” she said. “We have these influences existing in this body, which means that these influences are here in this body shaping the questions that are being asked of you all. Would you say that that’s correct?”
Even when they watch her, conservatives are rolling their eyes at her liberalism and/or material for memes mocking her.
After a Financial Services Committee hearing in March, she blamed Tim Sloan, the CEO of Wells Fargo, and his company for “the caging of children” on the southwestern border, based on its loans to private contractors that operate border detention facilities.
She also insisted that the bank help pay for environmental damages, such as a hypothetical oil spill from the Keystone pipeline, by energy companies with which it does business.
Mr. Sloan denied her accusations as a misunderstanding of liability law: “We don’t operate the pipeline; we provide financing.”
Freedom Works, a conservative group, called Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s lines of inquiry silly. In a tweet, it said the former economics major lacked a “basic understanding of simple economic concepts.”
The criticism is part of the typical partisan divide, said Capri Cafaro, an executive in residence at the American University School of Public Affairs and a former Ohio state senator. Conservatives attempt to turn her into a caricature while liberals rally around her. Democrats say they are fine with that.
“Of course, it’s an asset,” Mr. Khanna said. “I think she has a way of communicating on those committees that explains complex issues in ways that people can digest quickly, given their busy lives.”
Jennifer Victor, a legislative specialist at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, isn’t sure whether to attribute the work to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez or her staff but said the preparation shows.
“She comes across as someone who doesn’t come to a committee hearing unless she’s done quite a bit of background research on who is going to be there and what they are likely to know,” she said.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s path to the House — running as an unabashed democratic socialist and unseating a 10-year incumbent member of the Democratic leadership — means everything she does gets extra scrutiny. That only helps her committee appearances gain attention.
“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is already a media sensation,” Ms. Cafaro told The Washington Times. “So anything she says or does is going to kind of attract attention from the media. It is more likely to go viral.”
The congresswoman also does impromptu livestreaming on Instagram, effectively holding digital town halls for her followers across the country while, say, making a salad in her kitchen.
Ms. Victor and Ms. Cafaro said Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s showmanship compares to that of Rep. Jim Jordan, the combative Ohio Republican whose aggressive questioning of Obama administration officials and Mr. Trump’s opponents thrill conservative activists.
“Even though they are total opposites ideologically, they utilize the bully pulpit of their committee settings to drive home a point and are certainly happy to be in front of the camera,” Ms. Cafaro said.
Mr. Jordan gave a small chuckle and a shrug when asked about it.
“I’ll leave it up to the people who made the comparison,” he told The Times.
“I come to committee and I try to pursue the truth, and when I think people in the government have done something wrong or witnesses not representing things the way they should, I’m going to go after them. I try to do it politely, but I’ll be aggressive if need to,” he said.
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