From the first moment of swearing in through the closing gavel, “oversight hearings” are the most rust-encrusted and misused gear in the seized-up wreck that is congressional governance.
The swearing-in ritual itself is designed to establish the supremacy of the interrogators over the witnesses. As dozens of camera lenses clatter, even the most respectable witnesses are framed as defendants. And it goes downhill from there, a contrived danse macabre with an outcome as inevitable and dreary as the 14th-century ones.
Even the word “hearing” gets a euphemistic redefinition, because no one there actually wants to hear anything. Participants want to posture and hector. They want to make debating points and create clips full of righteous indignation for the evening newscasts and their Web pages and campaign ads.
This is not a new nor a partisan dysfunction, but like so many parts of our lives today, indiscriminate overuse adds to the hyper partisanship that makes us incapable of solving the very real problems we face.
Last week’s 3 1/2-hour hearing with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius cast as the victim would have been merely laughable if it had not been so disingenuous and contrived. The Democrats on the ungainly 54-member House Energy and Commerce Committee were girded to protect both her and the Affordable Care Act. The Republicans were equally scripted by staffers to attack and ridicule both her and the program.
No one was there to collect information, the supposed purpose of an oversight committee, as demonstrated by this statistic: Of the first 5,500 words spoken after the opening formalities and statements, only 1,700 or 31 percent were by the “witness” being interrogated.
Members were limited, at first, to four minutes each, then two. The attacking Republicans struggled to squeeze in their prepared rhetorical questions, and several scolded Sebelius for encroaching on “their” time as she responded to complex questions.
By the time the hearing dragged to a close, most of the Republican seats at the dais were empty, their occupants having departed as soon as they got in their shots, apparently having no further interest in the matter.
And of course there were tiresome, juvenile and mocking “Oz” references, including, alas, a Golden Brick Road one by Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita. Would a Mr. Secretary Sebelius have been scolded, “You’re not in Kansas anymore,” or were the sarcastic quips reserved for a befuddled and hapless Kansas lass?
Particularly since the advent of television, congressional hearings have a checkered history. The “Kefauver hearings” about organized crime in 1950-51 propelled Sen. Estes Kefauver, D-Tenn., into a vice-presidential nomination, while the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 propelled the demented and unlamented Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., out of politics for his abuse of the process. Senate hearings on two Supreme Court nominations became circuses, with Democrats (1969) sinking Judge Clement Haynsworth’s reputation with outraged allegations about a minor and irrelevant stock interest in a company involved in a lawsuit before him, and marking up eventual Justice Clarence Thomas (1991) in what he properly called “a high-tech lynching.”
Open government is a precious part of our system, but the cliche about sausage-making is valid: Sometimes the process is difficult to watch. Politics is necessarily about partisanship, but it must be about problem solving as well.