Rep. Pramila Jayapal is on a roll. Over the past two days, the Democrat from Washington has orchestrated two of the most memorable exchanges in two separate House hearings. In the first, she exposed the naked racism and political motivations behind Attorney General William Barr’s attacks on Portland, Oregon, protesters. In the second, she all but caught Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a series of lies about Facebook’s business practices.
During Jayapal’s questioning of Barr on Tuesday, the attorney general tried to dispute that law enforcement officers used tear gas to disperse protesters for the president’s photo-op near Lafayette Square in June. Officials have admitted to using chemical eye irritants in the attack on demonstrators, but, Barr said on Tuesday, “tear gas is a particular compound” that was not used. Jayapal stood firm. “I’m starting to lose my temper,” she told him, after he refused to address the substance of the question for the third or fourth time.
Barr also attempted to defend the deployment of federal agents to quash racial justice protests in Portland under the guise of protecting a federal building. Meanwhile, he denied ever hearing about the armed protesters in Michigan who, demanding an end to stay-at-home orders, stormed the state Capitol and threatened to lynch Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in May. Jayapal pointed out the disparity in his responses to these two groups of demonstrators. When Barr tried to interrupt her to say he only cared about protests that affect federal property, Jayapal cut him off. “This is my time, and I control it,” she said. She went on:
When protesters carry guns and Confederate flags and swastikas and call for the governor of Michigan to be beheaded and shot and lynched, somehow you’re not aware of that … because they’re getting the president’s personal agenda done. But when Black people and people of color protest police brutality, systemic racism, and the president’s very own lack of response to those critical issues, then you forcibly remove them with armed federal officers, pepper bombs, because they are considered terrorists by the president.
Unlike her Democratic colleagues, who effectively questioned Barr on racism within police forces and his fearmongering around mail-in voting, Jayapal didn’t get Barr on the record with any particularly damning statements. But her line of questioning offered more than just the hollow satisfaction of a good burn and the pleasure of watching a righteous legislator exert her power over a man who routinely abuses his. Most people don’t have the time or inclination to watch lengthy congressional hearings. If there’s big news, they’ll read the headlines or watch clips on their nightly news shows, but much of the substance of these hearings often goes unnoticed. By reacting to Barr’s outrageous deflections with the outrage they warranted, Jayapal ensured she’d make headlines. Then, she gave viewers and readers a concrete example of the Trump administration’s racist hypocrisy, in bracingly clear language. Unlike Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who said in an address on Tuesday that “anarchists should be prosecuted”—leading some progressives to argue that Trump and Biden are “two sides of the same coin”—Jayapal made no mealy-mouthed qualifications. She focused the blame where it belonged: not on political dissidents but on state entities that are violently attempting to suppress them.
On Wednesday, Jayapal emerged in the spotlight again. The House Judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee convened the giants of the tech world—Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Sundar Pichai, and Apple’s Tim Cook—to answer questions about their anti-competitive business practices. Jayapal began her Zuckerberg interrogation by quoting emails and statements from multiple Facebook executives, including the CEO himself, who’ve said that Facebook should block competitors from gaining traction in the marketplace and copy their products if necessary. Then she asked him, “Has Facebook ever taken steps to prevent competitors from getting footholds by copying competitors?”
Zuckerberg dodged. So she rephrased: “Since March of 2012, after that email conversation, how many competitors did Facebook end up copying?” “Congresswoman, I—I can’t give you a number of companies,” Zuckerberg replied.
After Zuckerberg said he didn’t remember any conversations in which he’d threatened to copy competitors’ products if they didn’t let Facebook acquire their businesses, Jayapal read aloud quotes from an online chat transcript that showed Zuckerberg doing exactly that in conversation with Instagram’s founder. “Facebook is a case study, in my opinion, in monopoly power, because your company harvests and monetizes our data and then your company uses that data to spy on competitors and to copy, acquire, and kill rivals,” Jayapal said. “These tactics reinforce Facebook’s dominance, which you then use in increasingly destructive ways.”
These hearings aren’t trials. In some cases, their public value is largely theatrical: The big shots who are called to testify hedge and stall, while the members of Congress pontificate from their seats, putting on a show for their constituents. Wednesday’s hearing fit this mold. The antitrust subcommittee had already been investigating these companies for more than a year, conducting hundreds of hours of interviews and collecting more than 1 million documents. At the hearing, the members didn’t extract much new information. Their main job was to make public the information they already had—and to make their constituents care. And Jayapal has proved herself to be remarkably skilled at merging performance with substance.
If there was ever any illusion that elected officials in this pseudo-democracy could be trusted to uphold the laws that govern it, the events of the past few years should have extinguished that hope. Powerful corporations and politicians will not police themselves, and many members of Congress will not risk angering the donor class unless there’s a public outcry to justify it. Jayapal didn’t just catch Zuckerberg in a defensive posture about Facebook’s unjustifiable consolidation of power in the tech industry. She laid the groundwork for the rest of America to understand what Facebook has been doing, grasp the cynicism of Zuckerberg’s attempted self-exoneration, and connect the dots between Facebook’s anti-competitive strategies and its role in the erosion of American democracy. If congressional Democrats ever hope to build popular support for breaking up or imposing stricter regulations on monopolies like Facebook, they’ll need people like Jayapal—who represents a district where many Amazon employees live—to sell the public on the urgency of the issue.
Jayapal’s week of scorchings comes on the heels of another notable show of strength in the House. Last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stood on the House floor and addressed her Republican colleague Rep. Ted Yoho, who’d called her a “fucking bitch” in front of an audience of reporters. She got a lot of approving (and deserved) press coverage of her speech, in which she laid into Republicans who’ve used their wives and daughters as shields against allegations of misogyny. Some would dismiss quotable, passionate, made-for-TV addresses like hers—and heated exchanges like Jayapal’s—as sound-bitey clapbacks with little concrete political import. But there is great value in confronting abuses of power directly, in public view, with such clarity. It gives people who haven’t been paying much attention an accessible explanation for why they should be worked up and the language they need to explain it to others.
It also gives many of us a worthy proxy for our impotent anger, transforming feelings of powerlessness into those of power. Yoho insists he said bullshit, not bitch, and besides, he says, Ocasio-Cortez deserved it; Zuckerberg insists that the threat he delivered to Instagram was no threat at all. It’s enough to make any rational, incensed observer wonder if she’s going mad—and yet, here are two members of Congress who firmly assure her she’s not. It is a formidable prophylactic against political apathy to see one’s fury at seemingly unchecked injustices expressed on a public stage by an elected official. It’s representative democracy at work.
For more of Slate’s news coverage, subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts or listen below.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.