An attraction to scandal and attack mode


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responds to questioning on the September attacks on U.S. diplomatic sites in Benghazi, Libya, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington January 23, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Congressional hearings held to bash mercilessly an administration of the other party are nothing new.

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  • Genuine oversight hearings can actually be bipartisan, and they can lead to sound policy decisions.

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  • Genuine, bipartisan hearings it might take the harsh partisan edge off the Benghazi spectacle.

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Editor's note: This article originally appeared in The New York Times' Room for Debate in response to the question: Have Congressional hearings become mere political devices to smear one party and attract voters?

Congressional hearings held by members of one party to bash mercilessly an administration of the other party are nothing new. Both sides have played that game, so in that sense, Representative Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is no outlier.

Indeed, he is very much in the tradition of former Representative Dan Burton, Republican of Indiana, who in the Clinton years focused monomaniacally on the suicide of Vince Foster, even once famously putting a bullet through the “head” of a pumpkin to make his point that this was no suicide. He is much less in the spirit of former Representative Tom Davis, Republican of Virginia, a fierce partisan who worked well with his counterpart, Representative Henry Waxman, Democrat of California, and, like Waxman when he was chairman, managed to actually do real oversight. But no chair of this committee has shunned the spotlight or avoided the temptation, from time to time, to use administration figures as piñatas.

So since there is at least a tradition of administration bashing and publicity seeking, I can’t fault Issa for holding hearings on Benghazi nearly as much as I can fault him for inflammatory press releases and wild accusations — just as I can fault major press organizations who rush to publish the accusations as “breaking news” before checking out their veracity.

But the larger fault goes to Congress as a whole, including but not limited to Issa, for acting like moths to flames in their attraction to attack mode and scandal, real or purported, while avoiding like a cat who has sat on a hot stove the more important heat of genuine oversight to make sure that flaws in government programs and policies are not repeated, or that dangers created by careless budget cuts or other failures are averted before catastrophe strikes.

Benghazi points out the larger problem here. Issa and his Republican colleagues eagerly and blithely voted repeatedly to take a meat ax to the budget for embassy security, and with the sequester, we will see another set of agonizing choices forced on the State Department and the Defense Department as well over where to allocate security resources.

Members of Congress talk a good game about fiscal discipline and how government has a spending problem — but then cut mindlessly and focus on party politics and their re-election campaigns. But genuine oversight hearings can actually be bipartisan, and they can lead to sound policy decisions — and if we had some of those hearings, it might take the harsh partisan edge off the Benghazi spectacle.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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