Congressional Hearings as Inquisitions

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During the 1950s, Senator Joe McCarthy convened hearings to discover Soviet moles in Hollywood, the State Department and the U.S. Army. The Army-McCarthy Hearings led to his downfall. Abusive practices by Committee and Subcommittee chairmen (no women) were reined in. Occasionally, hearings even became vehicles for serious and sustained investigations. Senator J. William Fulbright of the Foreign Relations Committee held extended hearings on the extent of U.S. security commitments abroad – uncovering facts that came as an unwelcome surprise to many of his colleagues and an interested public. Senator Sam Irvin of the Judiciary Committee conducted impeachment hearings with courtesy and restraint on President Richard M. Nixon’s fitness for office. The biggest and the best hearings of this era pursued fact-finding in a balanced way.

These days are long gone. Hearings on Capitol Hill have again become inquisitions – yet another indicator of poisonous partisanship. The reasons why are not hard to divine: Republican majorities come from safe one-party districts in the House of Representatives and safe Red States in the Senate, where the biggest threats to incumbents come from primary fights that drive Republican office holders toward showmanship and away from compromise. There’s no shortage of targets because the Clintons and Barack Obama drive Republicans crazy.

There are few outlets on Capitol Hill to reduce toxicity levels. One release valve would be to pass meaningful legislation, but Republicans would need to join with Democrats to do this, which, in turn, would accentuate fissures within the Republican ranks — and more challenges from the right. The absence of legislative accomplishment is thus necessary to avoid the further crack-up of the Republican Party. Which leaves only two outcomes on Capitol Hill: stasis and vindictiveness.

The vacuum created by not passing bills into law has been filled with hot air aimed at executive-branch officials. Republicans can reliably coalesce around Clinton- and Obama-bashing. Bill Clinton’s prodigious lack of discipline opened these floodgates, as petty Congressional investigations finally struck paydirt with the president’s personal indiscretions. (Historians will be challenged to explain to inquiring minds why lying about sex became grounds for impeachment.)

Obama’s personal life has been impeccable, which has only amped up the search for his failings elsewhere. At the top of this bill of particulars is the President’s reluctance to put more U.S. boots on the ground in – and planes in the air over – Syria, Iraq, and Libya. The voices leading this chorus of condemnation previously cheered on President George W. Bush’s trillion-dollar war in Iraq.

There can be no false equivalence about blame-sharing for this sad state of affairs. Republican majorities run Capitol Hill, and Republican-led hearings have again become auto-da-fés. One purpose of hearings is to drive up political resentments and negatives under the guise of fact-finding. The principal intended victim is, of course, Hillary Clinton who, like her husband, has a knack for providing easy fodder to inquisitors. Senator Joe McCarthy spent three months investigating whether the U.S. Army had been infiltrated by Communists. Republicans spent twenty-six months looking for criminal malfeasance by Secretary of State Clinton in the tragic deaths of four Americans in Benghazi – topped off by an epic eleven-hour grilling, during which Republicans tried to paint her with the scarlet letter “B.” Ms. Clinton declined to play the part of Hester Prynne, a task made easier by plain facts, repeated endlessly.

The damage done to U.S. international standing by Congressional inquisitions has exceeded the damage allegedly done by the Obama Administration’s policies. Much time has been spent on Capitol Hill trying to kill an agreement that prevents Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Go figure. Republicans chose to stage the biggest hearing of all – a Joint Session of Congress – to provide a stage for America’s friend and ally, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to trash the Iran agreement and the President of the United States. Now, there’s a formula for improving U.S. ties with obdurate governments in Israel and Saudi Arabia, but nowhere else in the Middle East.

By these standards, the hearing on “Pakistan: Friend or Foe?” co-chaired by Ted Poe and Matt Salmon of the House Foreign Affairs Committee was small potatoes. Seriously: If you are going to be reviled by means of a hearing, you need to pick a number and get in line. The “Friend or Foe” hearing was, however, big news in Pakistan, which is jittery about another “betrayal” by Washington. This time-honored narrative holds that the United States leaves Pakistan out to dry after wringing from it what Washington wants. The counter-narrative that played out on Capitol Hill was that Pakistan played the United States for a chump while pocketing U.S. military assistance.

It might be useful for U.S. and Pakistani legislators to get together, away from microphones, television cameras and the public’s gaze, to sort through these competing narratives. Pakistani parliamentarians can help members of Congress recall that the United States needed Pakistan’s support to help expel Soviet troops from Afghanistan, then as a channel of communication into the Taliban government with which Pakistan maintained diplomatic relations, then to help prosecute a war against the Taliban, then to bring Taliban leaders who enjoyed Pakistan’s hospitality into an Afghan peace process. Parliamentarians from Pakistan might convey that there has been great dissatisfaction in Pakistan about doing Washington’s “bidding” in Afghanistan.

Members of Congress might then point out that most of the harm that has come to Pakistan from the Afghan Wars has resulted from Rawalpindi’s choices, not Washington’s preferences. Members of Congress might also point out that Pakistan’s leaders know how to say “yes” to the United States in order to pursue their own perceived interests while receiving significant military and economic assistance from Washington. And that Pakistan’s leaders also know how to disregard U.S. preferences when they have seen fit.

Pakistani parliamentarians could then explain the sacrifices incurred by taking on some violent extremist groups and the prospective difficulties in taking on others. Members of Congress could then explain why this line of argument, absent the broadening of Pakistan’s counter-terrorism campaign, is no longer persuasive in Washington. Parliamentarians from Pakistan might then share information about new steps Pakistan is taking to alleviate U.S. concerns over groups like the Haqqani network and the Lashkar-e Toiba.

This kind of quiet communication among legislators would be more helpful than Pakistan’s other methods of conveying diplomatic talking points. These methods have fallen into disrepair and will not be improved by hiring an expensive lobbying firm. An important caveat: If Pakistan is still not ready to take on groups that engage in cross-border attacks in Afghanistan and India, then a conversation between Parliamentarians will not help.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on July 19, 2016.

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