There they go again. Reacting with outrage to the forcible removal of Elian Gonzalez from the Miami home of his great uncle, Republican congressional leaders have promised the country extensive hearings on what they clearly see as an abuse of public authority by President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno.
If these hearings follow the recent mold—impeachment, Whitewater, campaign fund-raising abuses and Waco—we can count on three results: The country will be appalled, the Republicans will be damaged politically and Congress will have further devalued the currency of its power to investigate.
Congress, of course, has every right and even responsibility to review the unusual circumstances of the Elian Gonzalez case, given its visibility and the massive show of force by immigration agents last Saturday morning.
A balanced, measured, deliberative inquiry in the House and/or Senate could conceivably cool passions and clarify the many difficult issues and tradeoffs that are a part of this continuing saga. Such an inquiry could possibly find fault with decisions made by public officials and suggest changes in law, regulations and agency practice.
But such outcomes require credibility and legitimacy, attributes one sadly no longer associates with this Congress. How could any fair-minded American take seriously an investigation launched by House Majority Whip Tom Delay’s invective on “jackbooted thugs” and supported by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s characterization of federal agents as “storm troopers”?
Perhaps these rhetorical flourishes, shrill and partisan as they sound, are understandable, given the strong emotions, political cross-currents and unprecedented publicity generated by this case. Politics is a contact sport, and many past congressional investigations, though motivated or shaped largely by political calculations of one party or the other, have nonetheless produced valuable results.
But now there is a new context that cannot be ignored. Barely a year has passed since the wrenching experience of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment. Whatever one’s views about the merits of the case against Clinton, there can be no doubt that a substantial majority of Americans believed the scandal was handled in much too long, public and partisan a manner.
Much the same can be said of other congressional investigations of misbehavior by the president, his wife and members of his administration, especially those chaired by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.). And these investigations have been part of a larger tapestry of the criminalization of politics, in which political differences are fought out in criminal investigations, civil litigation and congressional hearings instead of the ballot box.
The venom between the parties has poisoned the atmosphere in Washington and further soured the public on the political process.
Once again we confront a situation in which a large majority of Americans parts company with the majority leadership in Congress. Most people view the Elian Gonzalez melodrama through distinctly nonpolitical lenses. While sympathetic with the feelings of his Miami family, they believe the 6-year-old boy belongs with his father.
They are offended that political agendas intrude on what they view as largely a personal, family matter. They are also weary of a story that seemed to have had no end in sight, and relieved that Attorney General Reno took decisive action to end the standoff with no injury. And they are sickened by the transparently partisan and ideological broadside against her and others who took responsibility for returning Elian to his father.
Under these circumstances, it is hard to see how any political or public policy good can emerge from extended hearings in the Capitol. Legitimate questions can be raised about the operation but those who would consider them in Congress have compromised their impartiality by going on the political attack so quickly. More likely is that congressional Republicans will strain the patience of the American public while giving sustenance to those intense minorities who are already part of their political base.
That is not what Speaker Dennis Hastert had in mind in seeking to de-escalate the partisan conflict in Congress and fashion Republican proposals on popular issues such as a Medicare prescription drug benefit and a patient’s bill of rights in managed health care. At times it seems as if the Republicans in Congress have a death wish.