Hearing Impairment

Democrats used congressional harings to put on a show when they were in charge. Now it's the Republicans' turn.

A portrait of near apoplexy, the veins in his red nose seeming about to pop, 75-year-old Florida Democrat Sam Gibbons glared from the dais of the House Ways and Means Committee. He called Republicans liars and denounced their Medicare plan as a pox and a fraud.

Medicare was born 30 years ago in the cavernous Ways and Means hearing room of the Longworth Building where Democrats ruled for 40 yearsand where Gibbons was now rel egated to obstructionism and outrage as Republicans held a one-day hearing on their makeover of the Great Society's biggest social program. One day of hearings, said Gibbons, a 33-year member of the House, was hardly enough "on a matter involving the life and perhaps death of so many of our seniors and disabled people."

Placing a two-foot-high stack of testimony on the table, Republican Chairman Bill Archer retorted that the committee had already held hearings on Medicare prior to introducing the GOP reform bill. Gibbons summarily picked up the stack of paper, dumped it into the arms of a staffer, and pronounced, "This pile of material you see here is absolutely useless."

Such was the opening scene for a day of high political theater on Capitol Hill, one centered on the notion that congressional hearings are of crucial importance to American democracy, the forum where the weighty "testimony" of learned, objective experts from the outside world informs legislation. Some congressional hearings may glide within the remote periphery of that noble purpose. But most hearings are more like stage sets for carefully choreographed propa ganda shows that seek to feed an ideology, build momentum for legislation, skewer political opponents, aid political allies, spin the press, catch C-SPAN, and create headlines.

Democrats invented and perfected the formula during their four decades in power. Now, like Dr. Frankenstein, they express horror that their brainchild has turned against them. Some, like Gibbons, seem genuinely shocked that Republicans are overtly using hearings to promote their own ideology and undermine the huge entitlements and programs that make up the status superstructure Democrats have built. "What a desecration to this room," Gibbons intoned at the Medicare hearing. Others, like Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, seem eager to create a com peting sideshow that shamelessly plays to the lowest common denominator of public emotion and revanchist politics.

Like all hearings, the GOP Medicare panel was stacked with favorable witnesses, with the "star" appearances scheduled first to catch the press pack that usually evaporates after the open ing round. They included Guy King, Medicare's former chief actuary, who has long warned of the program's structural bankruptcy, and Peter Ferrarra of the National Center for Policy Analy sis, the lead brain and provocateur behind the GOP plan.

But Democrats know the formula, and they were not so easily flummoxed. The National Council of Senior Citizens, a union-backed lobbying group largely funded by the federal govern ment, had planted a group of yellow-shirted seniors in the back of the hearing room. After first sending a note to ask how they might get arrested, the seniors marched to the front of the room, carrying signs saying "Some Cuts Don't Heal" and "No Health Cuts for Tax Cuts for the Rich." It was a strange coincidence that the signs carried by these concerned grassroots citizens parroted the chief Democratic attack theme, but no matter. Cameras flashed and indignation rose as these beleaguered commoners stood with tape over their mouths, declaring that they had been silenced and that House Speaker Newt Gingrich ought to be arrested. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Demo crat and former civil rights leader, rose from his committee seat and solemnly walked down the line to shake their hands as a comrade in courage against this ghastly assault on their status quo.

Archer warned the group that House rules do not brook such disturbances, and the seniors were led from the room by Capitol police. "No party has a monopoly on compassion for the elderly," Archer said. In fact, he said, "We are on the verge of compassioning Medicare to death. Explosive entitlement spending has threatened the very solvency of these programs that we deeply cherish, not to mention the solvency of the nation itself."

Every Democrat and every Republican, from President Clinton and Newt Gingrich on down, knows that Archer is right. Medicare and Medicaid are bankrupting the Treasury and will themselves collapse when the baby-boom generation begins retiring in just 15 years. The sacro sanct Social Security program will implode at the same time, making the problems with the health care entitlement look like chicken feed.

But on Capitol Hill, politics must prevail. While Republicans were conducting their hear ing, Gephardt announced that his Democratic troops would hold their own rump Medicare hearings under a tree outside the Capitol to expose the GOP fraud to the American people. So out they went into the drizzle on the muddied East Lawn, complete with yellow umbrellas embla zoned with the word "Shame," microphones, a witness table and witnesses, a press table, a backdrop of huge black-and-white blow-ups of grizzled old folks, and a makeshift dais.

Although the Democrats insisted they were denied a room (Republican staffers hotly dispute the charge), they issued a fax announcing that their "alternative Medicare hearings" would take place in the Rayburn Building in case of heavy rain. But a light drizzle, it seemed, would suit their purposes nicely, keeping them out on the lawn in camera-ready demonstration of the GOP conspiracy to deny the public the facts.

The facts aired out on the lawn, however, turned out to be testimony from the yellow -shirted denizens of the National Council of Senior Citizens, who had traipsed across the street from the Longworth Building. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich led the "witnesses," accusing Republicans of turning the working class into the "anxious class." The Democrats also heard testimony from Harry Krantz of the National Capital Area Trade Union Retirees Club.

Bob Hug, listed as a Medicare beneficiary from Milford, Connecticut, provided tales of woe from America's elderly. Seniors, Hug said, "have high prescription drug costs that are not covered by the Medicare," and their automatic Social Security cost-of-living adjustment has been offset by higher Medicare premiums. "It is not fair to balance the budget on the backs of our senior citizens," he told the dwindling group of Democrats. (As they often do at hearings, mem bers had to leave early for more pressing appointments.) "I am sure there are other ways
to balance the budget," Hug said confidently. "Is this the way we should be treating our senior citizens, who paid their taxes all their lives, and who fought wars for this country? So you and I can live in freedom? I don't think so."

Republicans say they eschew such tactics. "What Democrats did was slide into a show trial, agitprop approach to hearings," says Eric Ueland, spokesman for the Senate Republican Policy Committee. "We're trying to get away from that. We don't browbeat witnesses, we don't intimidate witnesses, we don't write witnesses' statements for them, we don't stage witness -member interactions. We don't do any of that stuff."

It is true that so far Republicans have avoided some of the tawdrier hearing spectacles, in part because their anti-government ideology does not lend itself to hauling forth capitalism's victims to testify on their dire need for this or that government program. And they have not yet sunk to the depths of calling up movie stars and rock singers to educate them on federal policy.

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