Opening Day of Impeachment Season
Is the Judiciary Committee sick of Flytrap already?
For months, members of the House Judiciary Committee have been piously insisting that the last thing they want to do is conduct impeachment hearings, and for months journalists (including me) have been pooh-poohing them. Today, as they repeat the mantra, I begin to suspect they're telling the truth.
This morning marks the opening act of the decade's greatest legislative spectacle, and it's a dud. The House Judiciary Committee, the most flamboyant and ill-behaved of congressional bodies, takes up impeachment publicly today after weeks of closed sessions. If its performance this morning is any sign of things to come, this could be a much drearier process than anyone expected. Scandal fatigue has long since overcome the nation. Is it now overcoming Congress as well?
Today's is a pro forma operation. Republicans will say their piece. Democrats will say their piece. They will squabble a bit. At the end of the day, the committee will, by party line votes, adopt the Republican impeachment measure (no time limits to the inquiry, no subject limits) and reject the Democratic one (time limit, and only Flytrap).
As I write this, there are many hours of deliberation and voting still to come today. The debate will undoubtedly be contentious, but I must admit I am surprised by the morning's low energy level.
The committee session opens at 9:30, and it feels a bit like Class Picture Day. The 37 members know they will be live on national television, so they have all worn their most telegenic suits and ties. A suspiciously large number of them seem to be wearing makeup.
Chairman Henry Hyde starts the proceedings with his usual declaration of regretful duty. ("Constitutional obligation" is today's buzz phrase.) I expect the fireworks to follow Hyde. This committee, after all, includes Reps. John Conyers, Barney Frank, Charles Schumer, Bob Inglis, Charles Canady, Maxine Waters, and Bob Barr, to name a few. But mellowness reigns. As the opening statements continue over the next few hours, both Republicans and Democrats tread heavily worn paths.
Republicans argue that perjury is a major crime, that the rule of law must apply absolutely, and that the president must not be allowed to insult the judicial system. Nothing, in short, that you have not heard 500 times before. Democrats are equally familiar, countering that Clinton's behavior is gross but that impeachment is an utterly disproportionate punishment. (The day's delightful irony: Republicans universally refer to Watergate as their model investigation, while Democrats can barely get a sentence out without referring to one Founding Father or another. When was the last time before Flytrap that a Republican quoted former House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino? When was the last time that a Democrat cited the Federalist Papers or brandished a copy of the Constitution?)
If the subject matter is wearily familiar, the tone is merely weary. Republicans, who typically froth over Flytrap, are subdued. Their language is banal: "committee's responsibility," "public trust," "great institution," "deliberative process." Democrats seem equally dulled. CNN calls the committee's hearing "dignified." I would call it "uninspired." After a few speeches, some of the reporters sitting around me drop any pretense of listening and start reading newspapers. As the morning wears on, note-taking stops, heads nod, seats empty.
Some of the morning's flatness is undoubtedly strategic: Everyone wants to generate an appearance of bipartisanship and thoughtfulness. But some of it seems genuine. Perhaps they have shouted so much behind closed doors that they have depleted their outrage. (I know I'm running short.)
Not everyone, of course, is out of rage. Exhibit No. 1: Bob Barr. The Georgia Republican, who has been agitating for impeachment since mid-1997, revels in his moment of glory. He unleashes a torrent about "the cancer on the American presidency," "the smoldering ruins of a great democracy," "the cynical disdain for the rule of law." (Barr, who spams e-mail press releases announcing his TV appearances, also declares, "Anyone who has made it their goal to ... use [this process] for political gain should summon up whatever tattered remains of honor they have left, stand up, and walk out of this room.")
And on the Democratic side, Florida's Robert Wexler, who seems to be hoping that Alec Baldwin will play him in the Flytrap movie, fires right back. He shouts his opening statement into the microphone: "Does anyone reasonably believe that this amounts to subversion of government? Does anyone reasonably believe this is what the Founding Fathers were talking about? Is this where we want to set the bar for future presidents? I plead with this committee to end this nonsense." Wexler's speech wins the only applause of the morning. Throughout its duration Barr stares straight ahead, a look of implacable fury on his face.
Wexler and Barr are too fanatical to be the conscience of the impeachment hearings. That role should belong to South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham. His speech this morning pegs him as the bellwether, and he'll be a good one. Graham is one of those preternaturally young looking Republicans, and he has a genuinely engaging, folksy manner. His district is wildly anti-Clinton, and he has everything to gain by supporting impeachment, but his remarks indicate a heartfelt ambivalence about the scandal.
Graham frames the question as clearly as anyone has: "Is this Watergate or Peyton Place?" In other words, does Clinton operate a sinister criminal enterprise with "secret police" who systematically intimidate women and cover up wrongdoing? Or "does this guy just have a problem?" Graham sounds truly confused. It'll be interesting to watch him make up his mind.
Slate's Complete Flytrap Coverage