Michael KreponCongressional Hearings as Inquisitions

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.


  1. Lee (History)

    No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

  2. Kevin (History)

    First off, what does this have to do with Arms Control? There really is not much, if anything in here that has to do with the topic of the blog. While you make some decent points this would be far better in something like the New Republic, a perfectly respectable publication all the same, but one better suited for an article like this.

    Secondly, while you are correct that some committees, commissions, and hearings have turned into a political sideshow, especially House Foreign Affairs, there are a lot of committees that are bipartisan and where real debates on the issues come up; the HASC, SASC, and Senate Foreign Relations are just a few. While it is pertinent to point out the bad actors, like House Foreign Affairs, I think it is also worth mentioning those that cooperate, pass legislation, and, for the most part, have an ideas based discussion. When you only highlight the bad actors it makes people think there are only bad actors, which makes one side retrench, which makes the other side retrench, which perpetuates your original point of poisonous partisanship.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      When Congressional Hearings are detrimental to U.S. objectives to reduce nuclear dangers, they are a fit topic for ACW. posts — at least in my view.
      You are right, of course, that many Hearings are conducted in a serious way. I have testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and have appreciated the way in which Senator Corker goes about his business. He is a serious man who asks serious questions. I have testified before a joint subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee and was impressed by how Congressmen Forbes and Rogers conducted themselves.
      You are also right in noting that Subcommittee Chairs of the House Foreign Affairs Committee can go off the rails. They have too much company — again, in my view.

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      I’ve been waiting with ‘bated breath for someone else to reply; hasn’t happened, so here goes: It’s darned hard to get anything else, including arms control, done while the majority party is busy witch-hunting.

  3. Bradley Laing (History)

    Rachel Lee

    Ri Yong-ho
    North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho is expected to call on the international community to accept his country as a nuclear state at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Laos, officials here said Sunday.

    —-I read this, and my mind said: “Everybody duck!”


  4. Derick Schilling (History)

    Senator Sam Ervin (not Irvin) of North Carolina was chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, which held hearings on Watergate in the summer of 1973. Ervin was chosen for the position by Mike Mansfield, the Democratic majority leader, because he was a widely respected Southern conservative who could not easily be portrayed as a liberal out to settle scores with the Nixon administration.

    The impeachment hearings were conducted in the summer of 1974 by the House Judiciary Committee under the chairmanship of Congressman Peter Rodino (D-NJ).

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Good catch