Saturday, March 28, 2009

We’re Paying Congress for This?

We’re Paying Congress for This? by Stanley Kutler on Truthdig

As someone who became aware of politics back when my mom had the Watergate hearings on TV in the house every day, this is something I'm painfully aware of. Congress no longer does real investigations.

And now comes Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank’s choreographed extravaganza in the House of Representatives, supported by an echoing committee, with sound bites worthy of a night in the Borscht Belt. The ostensible probe of executive bonuses at AIG—forget about any investigation of the company’s decisions that so damaged the financial world—offered a painful reminder of Congress’ now largely ignored unique power of investigation, derived from its constitutionally sanctioned authority to legislate. True, Congress has abused this power from time to time, but that is no argument against its existence.

Rep. Frank provided a perfunctory, carefully staged hearing this month. His fellow committee members had been prepped and primed—seemingly by their press aides rather than by any legal staff.

I stopped that excerpt in mid-paragraph because this is undoubtably true. The whole purpose of a Congressional hearing these days is to give each member 5 or 10 minutes to talk in front of a camera. That is the whole point of a modern congressional hearing. It was true when the Republicans were refusing to do any oversight of their president, and it was true for the last two years when the Democrats refused to do any oversight on a Republican President.

Hearings used to be much more open-ended. The main questioners of witnesses were the legal staff of the hearing that had spent long hours compiling and reviewing evidence and taking depositions from key witnesses. Each congress-critter would also ask questions, but the time they had for this wasn't nearly so limited as today.

In a modern hearing, its all designed to fit into a nice slot on C-span, and to provide each congress-critter with film clips of them looking officious asking questions at a hearing. But, you can see how each Congress-critter usually only gets one 5 minute slot to do this in. This of course makes it possible for any witness to dodge answering questions by running out that 5 minutes and moving on to the next questioner. The whole thing is just a giant PR show, and getting any real information out of the witnesses is not the point.

Its clear that replacing the Republicans with Democrats didn't change this. And that's very unfortunate because congressional hearings play a key role in our democracy. We are supposed to have separate but equal branches of government that provide checks and balances upon each other. And if any of these is supposed to be strongest, it is supposed to be the Congress, not the Executive Branch. Having an independent Congress with the power to investigate is a key pillar in what is supposed to be our free and democratic government.

Each Congress-critter takes an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. When they shirk that key constitutional duty to instead just posture for the cameras, they are doing grave damage to our country. Want to know who's 'un-American' these days? Watch a Congressional hearing. But its not some supposed secret communist who's the un-American person on your screen. Its the congress-critters who are failing to live up to the oath they took with their hand on a bible at the start of the session of Congress.

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