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Accident Probes By Congress Often Capture Public's Attention


Two recent accidents involving the Boeing 737 Max 8 have the world and Congress looking closely at the plane's design. And now Congress is investigating the Federal Aviation Administration's approval process and whether safety inspectors were properly trained. Texas Senator Ted Cruz chairs a subcommittee on aviation and space, and he's already held one hearing.


TED CRUZ: Welcome to each of the witnesses. On March 10, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 departed Addis Ababa Airport with 157 souls on board.

MARTIN: Congressional investigations of accidents have often captured public attention, like the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. People followed press reports of 82 witness testimonies. Accident investigations is our subject this week for our conversation with commentator Cokie Roberts. She joins us for Ask Cokie, our weekly segment on how politics and government work.

Cokie, thanks for being here.


MARTIN: So it didn't take long, did it, for Congress to jump into the 737 disaster?

ROBERTS: Well, it's a big story, Rachel, and Congress wants to be in on the act. But that's often where Congress does have an important role to play, in looking at the agencies they've set up to regulate whatever industry has had an accident, whether it's the airlines, railroads, ships, whatever.

MARTIN: So one of our listeners wants to know what effect Congress has. Bob Gundby writes the following.

(Reading) It'd be interesting to see how many investigations resulted in meaningful, regulatory change or punishment for the people involved.


ROBERTS: Punishment usually comes in the form of huge payouts by the companies involved. But occasionally, individuals are charged. Here's Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Fritz Hollings in 1989 challenging the chairman of Exxon after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.


FRITZ HOLLINGS: Isn't it the case that the record shows this particular master of the vessel had three convictions of driving under the influence of alcohol? In other words, he had an alcohol problem?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes, sir. It shows that.

HOLLINGS: Man, that'd scare me to death in a boardroom if I were there on Exxon's board.

ROBERTS: In fact, the ship's captain went to trial, but a jury found him not guilty, said he was not driving drunk. But there are often regulatory changes, and in the wake of this investigation, for instance, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, strengthening the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to prevent and clean up spills and creating a cleanup trust fund by taxing oil.

MARTIN: OK. Here's our next question.

TEAL FENTON: Hello. My name is Teal Fenton. And I am from Greenville, S.C. Why does it always seem like when the government does these investigations, there are reports that never get released? Thank you.

ROBERTS: They issue reports, all right - lengthy, detailed reports, sometimes with some fanfare. Here's former Secretary of State William Rogers at the end of the investigation into the space shuttle Challenger explosion.


WILLIAM ROGERS: Every agency that worked with us on this report and all of the people on the commission came to the same conclusion, that the - this tragic accident was a result of the failure of that joint on the right aft booster rocket.

ROBERTS: All these reports are available to the public, including the 1,100 pages of the testimony in the Titanic hearings. In fact, after the 1997 movie about the Titanic made it popular again, a paperback was issued, "The Titanic Disaster Hearings."

MARTIN: A paperback of the report.

ROBERTS: A paperback of the hearings. But the report is online, as well. Just go to senate.gov, and you can find it along with just about anything else the Senate's ever done.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ROBERTS: Same with house.gov. They do put their reports out.

MARTIN: All right. Commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie.

Cokie, thanks so much.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.