Have you tuned into a Congressional hearing of late? From what little I’ve seen, many that have taken place within the last decade or so have really been entertaining. Well, entertaining might not be the right word. Theatrical may be a better descriptor. Self-serving is also a possibility. And time-wasting is definitely in the running.
I happened to tune in this week when Attorney General Merrick Garland was center stage at the House Judiciary Committee. He was summoned ostensibly to answer questions about his recent memos regarding “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff . . . .” Some Congresspersons feel as if those communications were aimed at parents expressing their displeasure of school curricula at local school board meetings and painting them as “domestic terrorists.”
The Garland appearance before the committee was fairly typical in that, in this case, Democrat members lobbed softball questions at the Attorney General while their Republican colleagues were doing their best to hurl unhittable, sharply-breaking curveballs. Garland, of course, is a Biden Administration appointee, so those actions are quite predictable. The reverse tends to happen when the roles are flipped and a Republican-appointed official is occupying the hot seat.
What tends not to change is the amount of time and oxygen too many of these committee hearings waste. That’s not to say all such investigatory proceedings are totally useless, but they do seem to follow a similar path. And I think it would be pretty easy to conjure up a script that would work for almost any similar event.
For example, a committee chair is always a member of the majority. Assuming the witness is considered friendly to that party, the welcoming remarks from the chair usually go something like this:
CHAIR: Thank you for coming today, WITNESS. We’re very honored to have you here to talk about this very important issue. You have been a stalwart supporter and defender of what is good and right and important in this country throughout your entire career. You are a credit to your profession and to the position you hold.
After the Chairperson opens the show (and, let’s face it, that’s pretty much what it is – a show, especially for the constituents back home), then committee members in the House each get five minutes to ask questions. Usually seniority determines order, with alternating majority and minority members getting equal turns.
So, the loyal opposition gets to go next.
OPPO: It’s interesting to me that the Chair thanked you for coming today, WITNESS. We actually subpoenaed you to be here, and if you hadn’t shown up, you could have been found in contempt and arrested. But, hey, potato, po-tah-tow, tomato, to-mah-tow, right?
That’s followed by a question sure to cause hackles to rise on the WITNESS and the majority members. It’s usually not quite as direct as, “Have you always been a blithering idiot, or is this a recent development that occurred after you assumed your current office?” But the effect is the same.
What’s perhaps most interesting in these meetings is that – surprise, surprise – many members have their own agenda and talking points (as does the witness), and they are bound and determined to make them known no matter how they relate to the reason the witness is there in the first place.
If some Congressperson wants to talk about how great it is that horses can swat flies with their tails, that’s how they’re going to use their five minutes. They know what they say is going to be shown on their local news back home that night. It doesn’t matter how relative to the reason for the meeting it is.
The Opposition members usually ask a probing question such as, “Have you stopped mainlining heroin?” and then spend the bulk of their time stridently asking, “Yes, or No? Just tell us Yes or No.”
From what I’ve observed, many of the elected participants actually leave the room after they’ve had their say. Especially if it’s around lunch time. Perhaps the worst part of being the Chair of a hearing is that you not only have to sit through the entire thing, but actually have to hopefully stay awake and kind of listen to other Representatives. You’re the official timekeeper, and you have to loudly interrupt them and say, “The Member’s time has expired,” when that 5-minute mark is reached. (That’s especially true when the minority members are bloviating.) Alas, decorum prohibits more colorful language to stop Members from talking which would no doubt liven up the proceedings greatly.
Democracy in action. It’s a sight to behold.