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Straight to Hell

It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.

– Mark Twain, Following the Equator

Now that members of Congress have returned to the playground at home to enjoy recess time (a considerably longer time than when the members were physically in grade school) it seems appropriate to contemplate what their absence from Washington means for the country. What it does not mean is that because its members are in the playground there will be no new laws passed.  No new laws were being passed before they went off to play.  What it does mean, however, is that fewer hearings will be conducted.

Congressional hearings are what members of Congress engage in when they have nothing else to do.  Ostensibly the purpose of hearings is to learn about problems that Congress can solve through legislation.  Since Congress no longer legislates,  hearings are principally designed to enable those conducting the hearings to make headlines.  If a hearing is especially successful it can be used to embarrass the person who is testifying.  This is especially useful if the hearing is conducted by a member of one party and the witness is a member of the other party.  If the embarrassment is really good, the person conducting the hearing may conduct lots of hearings on the same subject just for the sake of getting publicity.

The tragedy that took place in Benghazi has been treated by Republicans as a windfall.  They are, of course, sorry that Christopher Stevens, the ambassador to Libya in 2012, and three other Americans were killed in that attack but they have not permitted that to deter them from holding 13 hearings and 50 briefings as of this writing and producing 25,000 pages of documents that will never be read by anyone should members of Congress ever decide the hearings should draw to a close.  That will not happen for a while.  The House Select Committee plans to hold more hearings in September. Since an independent investigation has extensively examined the event and shown what lapses were responsible for the event,  the main purpose of the new hearings is to prove that Hillary Clinton is responsible for the death of the ambassador. Were she to announce that she does not plan to run for president, the committee would call off the hearings.  Of course the Benghazi hearing is one of only many hearings that the Republican members of the House have conducted.  Another was precipitated by the exchange of Taliban militants held for years without charges at Guantánamo for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

In exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl’s release, the president authorized the release of five  Taliban militants from Guantánamo without giving Congress 30 days’ notice as required by the National Defense Authorization Act.  The president saw a small window of opportunity to negotiate the sergeant’s release and decided to get the sergeant through that window lest it shut before he could act.  Commenting on the release Senator James Inhofe (R. -OK) said:  “Our joy at Sergeant Bergdahl’s release is tempered by the fact that President Obama chose to ignore the law, not to mention sound policy, to achieve it.”  Mr. Inhofe’s joy at the release of Sgt. Bergdahl is probably no less great than his joy at the opportunity to conduct yet another hearing to demonstrate that congress has a role to play in governing the country even without passing any laws.  In addition it afforded Republicans a different platform than the Affordable Care Act from which to attack President Obama.  There can never be enough platforms as they have repeatedly demonstrated.

Not all hearings are designed to attack the president.  Some are designed to permit congressmen to demonstrate their wisdom and their grasp of important affairs of which their constituents may have been unaware because of the dumb things they so often say. One such hearing took place in June at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on religious freedom, a hot topic if ever there was one and one that beggared a hearing.  Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State was testifying before the Committee on the issue of the separation of church and state. The hearing gave Louie Gohmert, a congressman from Texas,  the opportunity to get some important information in the public record. Demonstrating the same tolerance for those who do not subscribe to his religious beliefs as ISIS  shows to those who do not subscribe to their beliefs, Mr. Gohmert asked Mr. Lynn:  “Do you believe in sharing the good news that will keep people from going to Hell, consistent with Christian beliefs.”  After Mr. Lynn expressed disagreement with Mr. Gohmert’s assertion the Congressman said:  “So, you do not believe somebody would go to Hell if they do not believe Jesus is the way, the truth, the life.”  His comments will come as a bit of a surprise to those who had not thought they were heading for Hell because they did not share Mr. Gohmert’s religious views.  Indeed, many people think the country is going to hell not because of its religious beliefs but because of the behavior of Mr. Gohmert and many of his colleagues in the United States Congress. Those who think that are right.  Mr. Gohmert is wrong.

Christopher Brauchli can be emailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.

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