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Bipartisan Showboating

The U.S. Capitol building
photo by Guldem Ustun

Bipartisanship may be endangered in today’s Washington, but it isn’t extinct.

You don’t have to take my word for it. You can see for yourself on your favorite video device, just by tuning in for the latest exercise in congressional showboating, the as-it-happens hearings on the Equifax security breach.

It’s a custom as old as television, on both sides of the aisle: Capitalize on whatever happens to be in the headlines, whether communism or cybercrime, and haul in some schlemiel to grovel before the cameras while thumping one’s chest and proclaiming one’s outrage. The scene is often reminiscent of a troop of gorillas who have acquired better cameras and wardrobes, so maybe this behavior is somehow rooted in our shared DNA.

It is not difficult to distinguish these inquisitions from genuine legislative work. Real working sessions are usually much too boring to attract much, if any, media. As a result, they also tend to be attended only sporadically by the legislators themselves. Lawmakers let the staff and the committee and subcommittee chairs do most of the heavy lifting. Real legislative work seeks input from multiple perspectives and, as a result, usually results in lawmakers doing more listening than talking.

Showboat hearings, also referred to as kangaroo courts or, sometimes, just “hearings,” are quite the opposite. Nobody really cares what the schlemiel-of-the-day says, unless it is an apology (typical, since the schlemiel’s role is to grovel), a denial of culpability (incontrovertible proof of guilt), an honest explanation of what went wrong (equally strong proof of guilt) or an attack on the hearings’ purpose itself (a capital crime). The main point of such a hearing is to let those who are supposed to be listening do most of the talking.

The Equifax security breach is a genuinely big deal, touching on the security and integrity of one of this country’s most vital assets, the financial system. How do we ensure that the parties who claim to be engaged in a transaction are actually who they say they are? How do we eliminate the financial and strategic incentives that promote such cybercrime? Now that so much data has been misappropriated from Equifax, how do we minimize the practical impact of its potential for misuse?

These are all legitimate and important questions for congressional inquiry – which is why nobody wanted to talk about them.

Instead, Republicans like Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo of Idaho wanted to talk about why companies like Equifax should be allowed to gather and sell so much financial data about Americans at all. Democrats like Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), Chris Van Hollen (Maryland) and Joe Donnelly (Indiana) bleated about ordinary business practices, such as resolving consumer disputes through arbitration. Both parties went after the evergreen topic of executive compensation, specifically the money earned over the past decade by Equifax’s recently departed CEO, Richard Smith.

When actual solutions to tough problems are hard to find, which is most of the time, just throw red meat to your political base instead.

The Equifax hearing is the most recent example of this phenomenon, but hardly the only one. One of my earliest posts in this space focused on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s grilling of then-Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the Fed (along with the U.S. Treasury) scrambled to stabilize the global financial system. Those efforts included facilitating Bank of America’s acquisition of Merrill Lynch, a move that arguably prevented another crisis and inarguably did no lasting damage to Bank of America, which is doing just fine. That didn’t stop legislators on both sides of the aisle from complaining – loudly for the cameras – that Bernanke had overreached.

Those who watched the Bernanke hearings may have felt a touch of deja vu. Months earlier, Congress summoned the CEOs of Detroit’s automakers – Chrysler LLC, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. – for a metaphorical public flogging. The executives failed to display the appropriate level of humility, however, traveling from Michigan to Washington on corporate jets. Given the reaction to this choice, it is hard to blame them for considering a carpool when they returned the following week. Congress eventually allowed a bailout, but not before lawmakers got their opportunity for televised righteous indignation over the executives’ excesses.

It’s not only bankers and executives that Congress loves to bash, though both make excellent targets. Lawmakers can build good political theatre on a variety of foundations, including Major League Baseball and the NCAA. Cameras arrived in congressional committee rooms in 1948, meaning they were there in time to catch some of the most infamous congressional hearings of all: those of the House Un-American Activities Committee, sounding the alarm about supposed communists hidden in plain sight everywhere from Washington to Hollywood. Then as now, sometimes Congress’ investigation has a legitimate target, and sometimes it does not. Either way, the opening for legislative grandstanding is the same.

During recent NCAA hearings, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., responded tellingly to testimony that Congress had little room to actually legislate a solution to college athletes’ problems. “The NCAA is accountable to no one,” McCaskill said. “That’s why it’s critical that people in positions of power, like members of Congress continue to ask questions. You can do a lot with oversight, if you’re just willing to kick up a little dust.” Yet it is not at all clear that “kicking up a little dust” actually accomplishes much of anything – except demonstrating to voters that a representative wants to be seen to care about a given issue.

Sure, our two political parties have utterly different ideas about the role of government and the steps we should take to deal with the biggest issues of our time. But when it comes to the stuff they consider truly important, meaning the opportunities to preen and strut and hear themselves talk, they could not be more in sync. Kumbaya.

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