These days, Congress hears it all
By JIM ABRAMS
WASHINGTON — It's become a reality show-like ritual, Congress summoning once-imperious executives to be berated and shamed about the damage they've done to the country.
This time it's the chiefs of BP PLC and two other companies involved in the Gulf of Mexico spill. Appearing over two days before packed hearings in the House and Senate, they did not fare well.
And as usual, there was little inclination for lawmakers to examine their own role in the latest calamity.
Instead, senators pounced on the three executives for trying to shift responsibility for the environmental crisis to one of their seatmates. "I hear one message — don't blame me," said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. "Shifting the blame game doesn't get us very far."
Yet Congress itself is responsible both for writing the laws and overseeing the rules that are supposed to make offshore drilling safe and accident-free.
And many lawmakers have never been timid about taking oil industry money. BP employees and lobbyists have given more than $1 million in political contributions since the beginning of 2009, according to an Associated Press analysis.
Lawmakers walk into hearing rooms with a distinct home field advantage. Every committee member gets a shot at the witnesses, who often are given no time to answer questions or are cut off midway through their replies. Members sitting up on their dais are free to hurl charges and insults, but witnesses are supposed to be deferential.
Members of Congress have long been "unsurpassed at public displays of moral indignation," said Ross Baker, a congressional scholar at Rutgers University. He added that with anti-incumbent sentiments rising, these hearings have become even more pugnacious. "Getting on the side of beating up the big guys" can't hurt, he said.
There are plenty of big guys to beat up on these days.
The oil spill hearings came just two weeks after Goldman Sachs executives spent nine hours trying to defend themselves to senators accusing them of bilking investors and helping drive the nation into recession. The economic near-collapse has provided lots of chances to grill executives.
"You're in the middle of an enormous debacle," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., then chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in March 2008 told three corporate executives linked to the subprime mortgage crisis. "It seems that everyone is hurting except for you."
"As our company did well, I did well," said Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide Financial Corp., who subsequently was charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission with civil fraud and illegal inside trading.
Later that year, executives from the Big Three automakers got a lesson in humility when they had to make two trips to Washington to beg Congress for bailout money. The CEOs were roasted by lawmakers for taking private jets on their first trip to ask for handouts. The second time, they made the journey from Detroit in new-model hybrid autos made by their respective companies.
Even executives who come ready to atone for mistakes don't escape tongue-lashings. Toyota President Akio Toyoda repeatedly apologized for defects in his vehicles over three hours of testimony in the House. That wasn't enough for Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio. "I do not think it reflects significant remorse for those who have died," she said.
The once-high-and-mighty in government are not immune either. In 2008, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan was prodded to acknowledge his support of policies leading to the recession. "The list of mistakes is long and the cost to taxpayers is staggering," Waxman told Greenspan, former Treasury Secretary John Snow and former SEC Chairman Christopher Cox.
Sometimes witnesses just refuse to talk, as in 2004 when Michael Scanlon, partner of the now-jailed Jack Abramoff, asserted his Fifth Amendment right not to testify seven times while senators went on about how the pair had allegedly defrauded Indian tribes out of millions of dollars.
Also pleading the Fifth this year were White House gate crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi. That didn't stop lawmakers from peppering them with questions about how they got through Secret Service checkpoints at a state dinner.
Beyond the grandstanding, these big-publicity hearings do occasionally have real consequences. Tobacco executives who in 1994 testified that cigarettes were no more addictive than desserts had to later acknowledge the lethal effects of their product. And a dramatic hearing in 2005 where baseball greats Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa denied using steroids pushed Major League Baseball to crack down on performance-enhancing drugs.
Congressional hearings, Baker said, are a good channel for public outrage over social wrongs. "It's therapeutic, I think, for the public. Vicariously people are getting their licks in."