Are Congressional Investigations a Waste of Time?

People love to complain about Congress – especially about Congressional investigations. But should we?

The other day I was answering email in my office with the door open. A secretary just outside was discussing current events with her boss, a colleague of mine. The news had been full of scandals involving the executive branch of the US federal government; represented in media parlance as “The White House”. The Internal Revenue Service (Treasury Department) had been caught targeting conservative groups who were applying for tax exempt status, the Justice Department had been discovered illegally obtaining records from the Associated Press, and the State Department may have bungled the US response to the attack on Benghazi and then lied to cover it up. Adding insult to injury, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services has been accused of seeking donations from organizations that she regulates; a brazen conflict of interest and abuse of power if true.

Their conversation was loud, but not contentious. The secretary, a government service worker recently told that due to budget cuts she would have to take 11 days of unpaid furlough this year, said “Why is Congress wasting its time on political investigations like these when there is real work to be done?” Her boss, a senior military officer, agreed that such investigations distracted lawmakers from the real problems confronting the nation. The discourse ended about as quickly as it had begun, and Congress’ reputation, at least in the minds of these two Americans, sank even lower.

Were they right? Should Congress focus on “the issues” and eschew investigations of the other branches of government as a matter of course? If so, how do we define the issues that Congress needs to explore and which ones they do not?

The first place to seek an answer to this question is the Constitution of the United States, the guiding document for the US Federal Government. In it we discover that every part of the Constitution, from the Preamble “Establish Justice” to the Amendments implies that Congress has investigative authority or responsibility within the Federal Government. Mentions of “impeachment,” “define and punish,” and “establish tribunals” are examples. Further, state colonial legislatures and the British Parliament had investigatory powers, thus providing the legal precedent for the US Constitution.

The Founders did this to balance power between the Executive, Legislative and Judicial Branches of the Government. Congress, the legislative branch, was to be preeminent since it had the tightest connection to the people. The delegates spent more time and ink on defining Congress than any other branch. It was not, however, to become an oligarchy. The Presidency, the executive branch, was to be secondary since investing too much power in one man was sure to lead to tyranny, the very thing that the Americans had just fought a war to depose. The Supreme Court was to balance the other two, and received the least time and ink of all.

Congress’ power to investigate has been prominent throughout history. In 1792 it established a committee to investigate the defeat of General St. Clair and his army by Indians in the Northwest. In 1868 it impeached and nearly removed Andrew Johnson from the presidency. In 1998 it impeached Bill Clinton for obstruction of justice and perjury. Congress sometimes investigates and removes its own members for wrongdoing. Though I have mentioned only the first and some of the most prominent cases, Congress is very commonly engaged in some type of investigation.

The US Supreme Court has repeatedly reaffirm Congress’ right and responsibility to investigate issues that impact its ability to perform its functions, such as enacting legislation. McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135 (1927) supported Congress’ right to investigate, including issuing personal subpoenas, presuming that the object of the Senate in investigating it was to aid in legislating it. One of the most famous of these cases was United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974).

Shortly after the conversation, I came to a stopping point on email and went to speak to the secretary. She had an open Bible on her desk. I pointed at it and said “You know, that book teaches that man is not inherently good or trustworthy, and Congress’ responsibility to investigate comes directly from that fact. Congress scrutinizes situations to find the truth about them and maintain the balance of power between the branches of the federal government.”

To her credit, the secretary had listened and considered carefully. She replied “that makes sense, and so Congress has to balance investigations and issues to do the best work for the American people.” She was right, and we ended with a smile.

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The 2012 Presidential Debates

We have one television at home and generally watch only videos on it, because we have no cable, no satellite, and not even an antenna. With rare exceptions, we have lived without TV for over a decade. This year, however, with the Olympics in July and the presidential race in the fall we opted to buy an inexpensive cable package. One of the things that I anticipated watching was the series of presidential debates.

Elections are always a bizarre mix of truth and error, exaggeration and understatement, and bluster and bombast. Presidential elections are the most extreme. With little trust for the professional media, people seem to like debates because they feel that debates are the only unscripted and unstaged events in politics. Political conventions used to be raucous affairs with the outcome in doubt until the last ballot; now they are primarily pep rallies with the choice of candidate a foregone conclusion. Stump speeches and other events have more of the ring of a Hollywood production than of a chance to get to know the real candidate.

Stated another way, everything we know comes from our experience or the experience (and subsequent testimony) of others. We have ample personal experience with friends and family to feel that we truly know them. In the past, citizens roamed the White House and Capitol and interacted personally with their leaders. With the massive increase in the size and power of the Federal government in the past century, the US population growth, and the increase in security threats, this ended. People still feel like they should know governmental leaders but this has become impossible. Since we have little or no personal experience with the candidates, we rely on the statements of others about them. Unfortunately, those making the statements either have no experience of their own or largely turn these men into caricatures; so bad or so good as to belie the truth. Debates seem to provide a small but genuine personal interaction to each viewer.

I do not claim to be an undecided voter, but I hoped the first debate would be informative and civil. With modern attention spans measured in the minutes, not hours, I was not expecting a replay of Lincoln-Douglas (1858), though I would love to have seen it (yes, even the ridiculous portions, which have been around since before Cicero ran for Roman consul in 64 BC). The debate was a bit of a letdown, since it is hard to argue a point in a two minute long strings of sound bites, but I thought that each candidate performed well enough.

The next morning on the drive to work, the satellite radio channels erupted with exuberance (if the speaker was Republican) and drowned in despair (if the speaker was a Democrat). Apparently the commentators and focus groups felt that Republican challenger Mitt Romney had crushed Democratic Incumbent Barak Obama. Both sides reviled Obama for being “aloof”, “diffident”, and “weak”. President Obama explained that he had been too polite and promised to do better the next time.

If watching the first presidential debate was a bit of a letdown, watching the vice presidential debate was wearisome. This debate received our household prize for rudest and most arrogant of the year. My wife and I skipped the second presidential debate, recording it for my son, who wanted to watch it later. The next day he judged it “nothing but bickering and talking points”, summarizing that it was “not worth watching.” The thin, smile laden veneer failed to conceal the acrimony. Afterwards my son and I watched a clip from the Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates of 1960 and the Reagan Mondale debate from 1984. He asked “Dad, why can’t we have debates like that today?”

Radio commentators and focus groups, however, seemed to be quite satisfied. Many believed that the president and vice president made up for lost ground, showing “commitment” and “strength”. Democrats labeled the Republicans “wonkish” or “weak”. Behavior that would not have been tolerated in our home was lauded on satellite radio. Do we really think that such cacophony demonstrates strength? Is this behavior really useful in tense international negotiations? Is this how Nixon opened China, or what Eisenhower did at Panmunjom? By the third presidential debate my wife and I had regained our tolerance for 90 minutes of televised argument and rudeness, so we watched. My daughter, home from college, was fed up after 45 minutes. Nonetheless we persevered. On the whole, I found it better than the others.

Were these debates really what the American people wanted? They must have been what the media wanted because they droned on for hours with commentary and analysis. Perhaps election coverage is to the media what the Works Progress Administration was to workers in the 1930s; a source of some useful and much meaningless labor. The debates were clearly what some of the viewers wanted, as indicated by the recorded comments and the tenor of some of the social media coverage. If people wanted conflict, they got it, just like spectators at the Coliseum in Rome. Were the debates what the candidates wanted? One suspects that they were at least what they needed, because these ambitious and articulate men subjected themselves to this process. Perhaps that is why George Bush infamously checked his watch in the 1992 presidential debates; he had to perform but hated doing so. It is easy to conclude that many Americans got what they wanted in the debates.

People want their leaders to be successful and to care enough about them to help make them successful. People want their leaders to be enough like them to understand their problems and enough unlike them to solve the problems that they cannot. They want strong leaders to stand up to threats at home and abroad, and sensitive leaders who are touched at the sight of a mother grieving her fallen warrior son. They want a man who can deftly manage a civil war in Syria and equally manage the workplace rights of a breastfeeding mother. It is a tall order, and no one on earth can do it perfectly. The entire election process is the best that we, or anyone else, has devised to pick the man who can do it the best. The American style of government, republican democracy, is messy. But given the inherent corruption of man, it is the best possible government for providing the most good for the most people. The election process, including the wearisome debates, gives Americans a glimpse not just into the candidates, but into the glories, and absurdities, of republican democracy.

One last note, as citizens of the world, Christians must help shape the world to reflect the goodness of the One who created it. Justice matters, and believers in Christ should be the first to fight for it, just as the American Abolitionists, largely Christian, did 200 years ago. However as citizens of heaven, we must never put our hope in the world. God alone is sovereign, and regardless of the outcomes of elections, or any other event on earth, He is in control. Our ultimate trust must always be in Him.