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CONGRESS’ HEARINGS ARE AS CLOSE TO REAL LIFE AS GOVERNMENT GETS

SHARE CONGRESS’ HEARINGS ARE AS CLOSE TO REAL LIFE AS GOVERNMENT GETS

School civics classes regularly hold mock trials and legislative sessions to instruct the young in the ways of democracy.

These mock events are terribly misleading, of course.A court in the civics class consists of a judge, 12-person jury, opposing counsels, plaintiffs and defendants and enough witnesses to make sure each of 35 kids has a speaking part.

A more accurate representation of American justice, however, would have the kid playing an assistant district attorney and the kid playing the assistant public defender meet in a back room for an hour to work out 30 or 40 plea bargains, which would be passed for signature to a third kid playing an overworked judge.

It's unfortunate that schools do not stage mock congressional hearings because this is how Congress conducts most of its business. And if the kids screw up the mock hearing, it is all the more authentic.

Lawmakers' attendance at a hearing tends to be proportional to the number of cameras present. That's why there was such a huge turnout for the opening of the House Whitewater hearings.

Television has been a mixed blessing for the congressional hearing. A wise imagemaker, seeking to improve the public's regard for Congress, would probably try to prevent the Senate Judiciary Committee - the panel that grills would-be Supreme Court justices - from ever again appearing on TV.

The committee, whose bizarrely coiffed members manage to be simultaneously loquacious and inarticulate, should give deep pause to those who say our institutions should "look like America."

The saving grace, of course, is that in any mock congressional hearing, there's a role for every kid in the classroom, even - maybe especially - for the kid in the back who sleeps through everything.

One of the Senate giants, the late John Sparkman, D-Ala., was notorious for nodding off. When, as in many subcommittee hearings, there was only the one senator present, it was entertaining to see what the witnesses would do.

Some would doggedly drone on with their testimony even though Sparkman was clearly sound asleep. Others would try to rouse him through such strategems as progressively louder coughing fits or the less subtle, "You may interrupt me with questions at any time, Mr. Chairman. I SAID, YOU MAY INTERRUPT ME . . ."

Congressional hearings can be terribly inconclusive and ambiguous. Their timing is erratic, alternately moving in abrupt fits and starts and then droning on for close to forever. The committee members tend to work and talk at cross purposes. Nobody listens.

Which is why the congressional hearing should be taught in the schools. It's as close to real life as government gets.