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Why Congress would be better off holding no hearings at all

Partisan circuses have debased the very concept of hearings

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler was just one of the many characters with politics on their minds during the Corey Lewandowski hearing last week, Murphy writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler was just one of the many characters with politics on their minds during the Corey Lewandowski hearing last week, Murphy writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — Nobody loves a congressional hearing more than I do. The gavel, the suspense, the minutiae — I love it all. But until members of Congress can control their worst urges during televised hearings, they should suspend them altogether or risk losing the meaningful value of all congressional hearings in the process. 

I hate to “both sides” this one, but Democrats and Republicans were equally guilty of making an absolute mockery of the hearing process last week. Between the out-of-control Corey Lewandowski hearing in the House Judiciary Committee, the superficial embarrassments of the climate crisis hearing at a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, and the decades-old partisan rehash of the D.C. statehood hearing in House Oversight and Reform, Congress managed to make an essential part of the legislative process look like a new form of political corruption.

Politics in hearings? I know we’re all shocked. In the case of the House Judiciary hearing, Chairman Jerry Nadler is facing a serious primary challenge back home in New York from Lindsey Boylan, who has been relentless in accusing the longtime lawmaker of soft-pedaling impeachment in his committee to please Speaker Nancy Pelosi and maintain his own power.

On the Republican side, Judiciary ranking member Doug Collins has recently told President Donald Trump he wants the Georgia Senate seat that Johnny Isakson will leave open when he retires at the end of the year.

As for that hearings’s sole witness, Lewandowski, a former Trump campaign manager, has made it known he will likely run for Senate in New Hampshire. Between the three principals, not one has an off-year from politics in 2020. So it should have been easy to predict the outcome of the hearing, with cable networks going live.

But could any of us have guessed that in Nadler’s first five minutes of questioning, Collins would have stopped it twice to tell him he’d run over his five minutes, only for Nadler and Collins to force roll call votes on the question that took almost 10 minutes? “The clerk will call the role,” Nadler said in an especially Keystone Cops moment. “Where’s the clerk?”

With Trump watching — and live-tweeting — the hearing, Collins dismissed the whole event as a stand-in for a Trump impeachment Democrats can’t get across the finish line. “The problem is you don’t have the votes!” 

Nobody had a better day than Lewandowski, who didn’t need the fawning defense he got from Republicans to keep the Democrats down. From using his opening statement to review being born in New Hampshire and having a “passion for politics” (Senate intro ad, anyone?) to calling the dumpster fire of the chronically disorganized Trump campaign from which he was fired “the greatest political movement in American history” to declaring the “honor and privilege” he had working for Trump, Lewandowski got more free air time than Amber Alerts. He freely insulted the committee as “Trump haters,” mocked Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and declared “no collusion” so frequently, it’s hard to believe he isn’t on the White House payroll.

From a written script, Nadler later threatened to hold Lewandowski in contempt for the show, but never did. And he promised the witness, or maybe the TV cameras, “We will not be deterred.” OK …

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The circus continued

But Nadler wasn’t the only chairman who seemed to be wasting Americans’ time last week. At the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment, Chairman Bill Keating kept calling Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg “Miss Tune-bury” and started off by slowly asking her a question so simple she seemed either confounded or amused.

“Miss Tune-bury, could you expand on why it’s so important to listen to science?”

Thunberg, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and given her own TED talk, responded with a confused smile. “I don’t see why we wouldn’t listen to the science,” she said. “It’s the science. So … yeah.”

Republicans spent much of their time arguing out that China was far worse than the United States in terms of their emissions growth, only for Thunberg to tell them that Swedes use the same excuse, but with Americans. Finally, one of the teen activists turned the tables: “I have a question. When your children ask you, ‘Did you do everything in your power to stop the climate crisis?’ Can you really look them eye and say no?” Nobody on the committee answered.

Finally, at the House Oversight and Reform hearing on D.C. statehood — which has not gotten a hearing in more than 25 years — Chris Marquette’s headline in Roll Call says it all: “New hearing on D.C. statehood, same old partisan lines.” Ugh. 

Messes in the making

Of course, House members aren’t the only offenders. Senators have overseen plenty of partisan circuses only to send fundraising emails as those very hearings were happening. The confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh jump to mind.

And there were, of course, valuable hearings that took place last week almost unnoticed, like a House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on white nationalist terrorism or the Senate Commerce hearing on mass violence and digital responsibility. But the problem for Congress as an institution is that the horrible hearings broke through and debased the very concept of congressional hearings in the process.

After last week’s mess, here are a few of the reviews:

Let the Lewandowski circus change congressional hearings forever. Because the status quo is just terrible.” 

Teen climate activists make Congress look like incompetent children.”

 “It was chaos, and then a real lawyer showed up.” 

Until Congress can responsibly execute the responsibility of holding hearings in public, they’d truly be better off holding no hearings at all.

Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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