For 12 years the Democratic Congress showed no mercy in its relentless hounding of officials from the Reagan and Bush administrations on matters great and small. Every day, the office of this and the bureau of that received letters from Democratic members of Congress demanding thousands of pages of documents. And Ronald Reagan himself directed in an executive order that all officials in the executive branch comply promptly with all requests from any member of Congress – with a couple of exceptions relating to national security and ongoing executive-branch investigations.

So off went the Reagan-Bush documents by the truckload. And off marched the officials by the score, each to his lonely place under the klieg lights at a small table facing an amphitheater of dour members of Congress – many of whom hoped to derive not only political gain but also personal satisfaction from the torture they were about to inflict.

And they were skilled, these Democratic inquisitors. Say the subject was whether auto-collision safety standards were high enough: You could be sure that the first panel of witnesses would consist of a couple of people who had been maimed in collisions as well as the young parents of a toddler who had been killed. The second panel would consist of consumer advocates and their pet scientists who would say they had been issuing warnings for years about the lax standards.

Then to the witness table would step a lone, heroic Detroit whistle-blower, who would display a memo he had written to his superiors at the company pointing out how easy and cheap it would be to make the cars ever so much safer – and the curt memo he received in reply saying that cars currently meet federal standards.

This groundwork having been laid, it would be the turn of the lucky Reagan-Bush official to explain the policy on standards. And later that night, as he watched the network-news report on the hearing, he could contemplate his new role as National Celebrity Baby Killer.

In short, the Democrat-run hearings were structured to tell a compelling story simply and clearly. (That the story might be a load of hooey, or at least vastly misleading, need not concern us here.) And, oh yes – you Republicans on the panel: You get absolutely no say in the structure of the hearings. The rules do allow the minority one day at the end of the inquisition to call what-ever witnesses it likes. The cameras somehow are long gone by then.

Now, as it happens, when the Clinton administration came in, congressional oversight of the executive branch more or less ceased. A thousand principled arguments and well-established precedents on when to have hearings, and how vigorously to pursue what kind of matters – all sanctimoniously advanced by Democrats during Republican administrations – came crashing to the ground. It had all been, or at least mostly been, blather. The hearing agenda was always partisan, or at least mostly partisan. A Democratic Congress simply was not going to perform the kind of oversight on a Democratic administration it would perform on a Republican administration – and never mind the flurry after flurry of allegations of impropriety or worse that swirled out of the Clinton hollows and burrows.

Republicans, though perhaps not surprised, were furious. And they vowed that if they controlled Congress things would change.

Well, now they control Congress. And now we have had serious Whitewater and Waco hearings. Why, then, are so many Democrats smiling? Because Republicans have not, in truth, learned how to do hearings properly, at least not yet.

They’d better figure it out.

The hearings each offer a different set of lessons. In the case of Waco, the problem is that Republicans failed to impose an appropriate structure for them, giving up control. The lead-off testimony of the young girl who revealed in horrible detail how David Koresh had taken her out of the compound and molested her was a disaster from which the hearings never recovered. But the question of Waco was never whether Koresh was a nice guy, an Elmer Gantry, or whether he deserved to be arrested. The question was always whether the means chosen by federal officials were appropriate to the situation at hand. Obviously, they were not. The solution to any child abuse that might have occurred inside the compound was not a confrontation with tanks and toxic gas leading to the fiery death of all the children in the compound.

When you miss establishing your point from the get-go, you are negligent in your responsibilities and you run the risk of a Charles Schumer, a highly capable and well-prepared Democrat, taking over and creating a drama of his own design.

In the case of Whitewater, the problem was the complexity of the subject matter. By the end of the second week of Senate hearings, there was much new and interesting material on the record, all of it generally supportive of the proposition that some officials in the administration were worried about what might be in Vince Foster’s office and wanted to find out before disinterested investigators got their hands on the material. But for those observing the process, this became largely a matter of piecing together stray bits of information from disparate testimony and other sources. The Republicans provided no structure, no summary, no thundering exposition to make clear that all of this might mean conspiracy to commit a felony known as obstruction of justice.

You remember obstruction of justice – it was for this that Richard Nixon was hounded from the White House and members of his administration were sent to jail.

All in all, the holding of congressional hearings for the constitutional purpose of “oversight” is not going well. Republicans had better master it; because, if they don’t, the past masters on the other side of the aisle are going to eat them alive.