Why are the subjects of congressional hearings so submissive at these hearings?

Take the recent US congressional hearing with the CEO of Google. I found Sundar Pichai extremely patient, calm and even timid in his responses even when faced with idiotic and sometimes rude questions. For example, here by Ted Poe.


Is there anything stopping him from calling out Poe's question as stupid for expecting a yes/no answer to a very complicated question? Moreoever, he gets repeatedly interrupted and this is clearly a politician trying to score a zinger, as opposed to someone trying to work with Pichai to get to the bottom of a complex issue.

This even applies when politicians themselves are the subject of the hearings - e.g. Hillary Clinton, a seasoned politician, was equally deferential and courteous at her email scandal hearing while her questioners were the diametric opposite. Why is this so?

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    Not sure why this is getting downvotes but I'm happy to edit the question if someone has feedback on what's wrong with it. Dec 12 '18 at 11:52
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    Welcome to Politics SE- I speculate that the reason this question is downvoted is because it is soliciting speculation. As you will find out, this site is adverse to entertaining questions that (explicitly or implicitly) call for speculation. While it may be an interesting question it does not conform to the requirements of Politics Stack exchange.
    – BobE
    Dec 12 '18 at 16:21
  • I think the downvotes without constructive criticism are a violation of the "Be Nice" rule. Some people in this forum seek to avoid opinion, probably with the good intent of avoiding partisan debate, but this seems like a question to which many valid answers exist that are not partisan in nature. Dec 12 '18 at 17:44
  • Thanks. I'm happy to make it less speculative and more concrete if anyone has suggestions, otherwise please feel free to delete it. My main point is to ask why the subjects simply sit there and take it when faced with ignorant and/or rude lines of questioning. This deference is not seen in other avenues such as debates, courts of law etc. where someone going on such a power trip would instantly get called out. Dec 12 '18 at 19:11
  • @Burt_Harris - not to belabor the point, but I've been chided (and closed) before by asking questions that contain the word "Why" when there does not seem to be "factual" answer. Point in fact is that one of the criteria for closing questions is: "Primarily Opinion Based", partisanship had nothing to do with it.
    – BobE
    Dec 13 '18 at 4:53

There are several reasons people can act deferential in congressional hearings. A given individual may or may not be motivated by them with regard to a particular question, some to consider include:

  • Contempt of Congress The traditional definition of which includes rudeness, caprice, or conspiracy.

  • Legislation counter to the witnesses interests can also enter into it. For the example of Google, there are a number of areas where the company's financial interests might be severely impacted by decision made by a legislature.

  • Duty to Represent the Company. When an officer or even employee is in public, most companies will hold that person responsible for upholding the reputation of the company. Being rude in the name of a company would be grounds for termination for most, if not all, corporate executives.

  • Thanks! I find this contempt of congress argument plausible (although it still annoys me that you can't be rude to a congressperson while they can be as rude as they want to you!) Dec 12 '18 at 19:20
  • @user1936752 You can't be rude to them when you've been called to a congressional hearing. This is because they have authority in that situation and you don't. If you meet Steve King or Nancy Pelosi or whoever in a bar, you can be as rude as you like. Dec 12 '18 at 20:00
  • The next time I meet Nancy in that Capitol Hill bar, I'll consider it. But I'll tell her eyeballfrog sent me. Dec 14 '18 at 5:49
  1. Congress people have power (both hard - ability to pass laws and regulation) and soft (influence).

    As such, antagonizing them just to score a self-satisfying "I called out your stupid question" points is not really good as far as costs/benefits ratio goes. You never know when a congressperson you just annoyed would be a deciding vote on something majorly affecting you.

  2. A company such a Google needs customers. Antagonizing customers who may politically align with said congressperson is not always the best way to attract or retain them as customers going forward.

P.S. As a separate tangent, the question by Poe that you linked to was not "stupid". It was a very good question (from my view as someone who does software engineer for a living and knows a thing or two about personal information nuances as well as someone who is interested in privacy policy).

  • I'll leave the Poe question aside (see comment above by @Geobits) but it really seems like a blatant power trip for Congress and it seems unusual for everyone else to simply let thing lie. In particular, this is not only for company employees but also hearings for politicians like Clinton (presumably she is allowed to piss off a congressman and have no effect on a guilty/not guilty verdict) Dec 12 '18 at 19:15
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    @Thomas - I didn't read the full transcript to know if the guy has iPhone or Nexus, but as most people's iPhone has tons of Google software that records their location (starting with Google Maps) and that privacy has more to do with software and services and not who made the hardware, apparently the asker is smarter than critics even in iPhone case.
    – user4012
    Dec 12 '18 at 20:24
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    @Geobits The services turn on location tracking by default and force users into that. So, a common sense answer from a privacy advocate's view is a simple "yes", with a nuanced answer being "yes, but it may be turned off by some rare advanced users". As the purpose and the audience are normal people and lawmakers, not users of Android.SE, a binary answer is a correct one in this case. Pinchai tried to lawyer away the high level truth with technical mumbo jumbo, which is his right, the congresscritter called him out on that lawyering out which is his right.
    – user4012
    Dec 12 '18 at 20:28
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    Since the outcome is binary (do we regulate Google etc... or not on privacy), the answer may very well have to be binary. And if you honestly look at the full context, in that case "yes" is the only correct answer.
    – user4012
    Dec 13 '18 at 14:25

Think of it as a law enforcement situation. The congresscritter has all the power, just like if you're 'randomly' stopped by the police. There is no expectation that the officer must be polite and softspoken to you, but there is an expectation that you are polite and softspoken to him. Why? Because he can at minimum make your life miserable and ruin your day, and at most, he can find something on the books to charge you with.

In this particular case, though, most of the people who questioned him had almost no knowledge about what his company actually did, but they knew they were supposed to be angry at him. Nothing Pichai could have volunteered/taught would have helped his case, as it would have just further exposed their sheer lack of research beforehand. Getting yelled at for hours is better than serving time for contempt or perjury charges.

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