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?


3 Answers 3


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.

  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, 2018 at 19:15
  • It may not be a "stupid" question, but it is not answerable as a simple yes/no because it depends. It appears the congressman may not be aware that his iPhone is not made by Google, which would be stupid.
    – Thomas
    Dec 12, 2018 at 19:34

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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