Hearing Impairment

Democrats used congressional hearings 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 years and where Gibbons was now relegated 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 propaganda 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 competing 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 Analysis, 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 government, 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 Democrat 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 sacrosanct 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 hearing, 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 emblazoned 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, members 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.

Democrats are famous for bringing forth such experts as Sally Fields (to explain the necessity for farm programs) and Bonnie Raitt (to explore the spirituality of California redwoods). Ben Hur star Charlton Heston, a Republican, did testify last spring, but it was to beg for continued funding of the National Endowment for the Arts. And at a recent meeting of the House Commerce Committee, the Seniors Coalition, a Republican-inspired group, adopted the techniques of their Democratic counterpart, marching to the front of the room and dumping bags of direct-mail-generated telegrams in support of the GOP plan.

Although they have generally gotten the hang of things, the novice Republicans had a few rough starts. At a hearing on securities litigation reform last spring, Democrats exposed the GOP's star witness as a litigant, while Republicans were outwitted by the witness they intended to skewer. The toughest question that Bill Lerach, king of class-action securities litigation, had to answer was how much money he made. And he cleverly brought with him two of his own clients, supposed victims of securities manipulation, from whom he managed to wring heart-wrenching testimony for his own cause. "It was painful to watch," said a tort-reform lobbyist. "It was obvious these guys didn't know what they were doing."

Hearings do serve some useful purposes. They are the primary means by which Congress pursues its constitutional duty to oversee the executive branch. The most interesting ones explore important public issues or unanswered questions, whether over Ruby Ridge and Waco or Watergate. Sometimes, as with the hearing on the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, they spin out of control, and in so doing illuminate the great ideological fissures of the time and the dirty inner workings of political warfare.

When he was baron of the House Commerce Committee, Michigan Democrat John Dingell made the investigative hearing an art form, calling in alleged miscreants from industry or Republican administrations and excoriating them with carefully researched accusations developed by a staff of more than 100. "If he heard or saw something that someone was doing that he didn't like," says Frederick Graefe, a lobbyist with Baker and Hostetler, a Washington law firm, "he'd subpoena them and make them testify, make them squirm under the lights, put them under oath and make them hire a lawyer."

Hearings can be quite significant in manipulating the news and focusing public debate. The new Republican majority has brought a radical switch in the subject of congressional hearings, elevating topics that never before had been discussed in such a prominent forum. "This was a big change for me," says a Democratic staffer on a Senate committee. "If there was some issue we wanted to shine a spotlight on, we'd just call a hearing when we were in the majority, and we can't do that anymore. Now Republicans can use hearings to shine a spotlight on something, like their revolutionary tax schemes, and next year, believe me, there will be tons of hearings on revolutionary tax schemes."

While most members relieve their boredom at hearings by reading their mail, going through papers, signing letters, or reading documents, sometimes they actually do try to avail themselves of the opportunity to question experts. But "with very few exceptions, most members of Congress have had their minds made up on a particular issue, whether Medicare or anything else, before the hearings are ever held," Graefe says. "The hearing satisfies their obligation to have a public airing of what they proposed. And the Republicans in the House this year aren't approaching hearings, in my judgment, any differently than House Democrats have done. There were hearings held, a bill was drafted, it had a markup, and it passed. I mean, that's been the process up here for many, many, many years."

Lobbyists fill hearing rooms, mainly because they often are the ones actually running the hearing. A former congressional staffer and trade-association lobbyist says most lobbyists show up because "to be honest, they feel they have to do it for their trade association, to show you're making some sort of effort to get your word in there." Lobbyists help find witnesses, write their testimony, and make up questions for members to ask. A common tactic, the lobbyist says, is to find a witness who personally touches a member.

When lobbying for health-research funding, she says, "sometimes you can perk up their attention if it's a discussion of a disease one of the committee members has or if his mother died of it. In that case, it can be influential." Lobbyists are "not at all shy to seize any kind of opportunity to jump on someone," she says. "I'm sure it took all of 15 seconds for the spinal-cord injury association to call Christopher Reeve to get him on their board, and I'm sure he'll be coming in his wheelchair to testify. You can evoke a lot of sympathy if you have someone come in a wheelchair or someone who evokes tears from members."

So are laws written and policy shaped in a great democracy. But the Democratic staffer thinks hearings can educate members and the public. "You do learn stuff here," he says. "You learn from experts, and when they're testifying before Congress, people get up for it. You can attract some of the best people in various fields to give their expertise. And even if I'm not learning something, my guess is the press table is."

Contributing Editor Carolyn Lochhead is Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle.