The dramatic hearing on presidential crimes and abuses of power held on Friday by the House Judiciary Committee was both a staged farce, and at the same time, a powerful demonstration of the power of a grassroots movement in defense of the Constitution. It was at once both testimony to the cowardice and self-inflicted impotence of Congress and of the Democratic Party that technically controls that body, and to the enormity of the damage that has been wrought to the nation’s democracy by two aspiring tyrants in the White House.
As Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), chairman of the committee, made clear more than once during the six-hour session, this was “not an impeachment hearing, however much many in the audience might wish it to be.” He might well have added that he himself was not the fierce defender of the Constitution and of the authority of Congress that he once was before gaining control of the Judiciary Committee, however much his constituents, his wife, and Americans across the country might wish him to be.
At the same time, while the hearing was strictly limited to the most superficial airing of Bush administration crimes and misdemeanors, the fact that the session — technically an argument in defense of 26 articles of impeachment filed in the House over the past several months by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) — was nonetheless a major victory for the impeachment movement. It happened because earlier in the month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who has sworn since taking control of the House in November 2006, that impeachment would be “off the table” during the 110th Congress, called a hasty meeting with Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Rep. Conyers, and Rep. Kucinich, and called for such a limited hearing.
It was no coincidence that shortly before Pelosi’s backdown, peace activist and Gold Star mother Cindy Sheehan announced that her campaign had collected well over the 10,000 signatures necessary to qualify for listing on the ballot as an independent candidate for Congress against Pelosi in the Speaker’s home district in San Francisco. Sheehan has been an outspoken advocate of impeaching both Bush and Cheney. “Pelosi is trying to throw a bone to her constituents by allowing a hearing on impeachment,” said Sheehan, who came to Washington, DC to attend. “It’s just like her finally stating publicly that Bush’s presidency is a failure — something it has taken her two years to come to, but which we’ve been saying for years.”
So determined were Pelosi and Conyers to limit the scope and intensity of the hearing that they acceded to a call for Republicans on the Judiciary Committee to adhere to Thomas Jefferson’s Rules of the House, which prohibit any derogatory comments about the President, which was interpreted by Chairman Conyers as meaning no one, including witnesses or members of the committee, could suggest that Bush had lied or deceived anyone. Since a number of Rep. Kucinich’s proposed articles of impeachment specifically charge the president with lying to Congress and the American People, this made for some comic moments, with witness Bruce Fein, a former assistant attorney general under former President Ronald Reagan, to say he would reference his listing of crimes to the “resident” of the White House.
In the end, the rule imposing a gag on calling the president a criminal fell by the wayside, with witness Vincent Bugliosi, a former Los Angeles deputy district attorney, accusing Bush of being guilty of the murder of over 4000 American soldiers and of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians because he had “lied” the country into an illegal and unnecessary war, and with committee member Shirley Jackson Lee (D-CA) suggesting that the president may have committed treason in invading Iraq, and that he appeared to be preparing to do it again with an unprovoked invasion of Iran.
Conyers also acquiesced in a Republican effort to minimize public monitoring and involvement in the hearing, allowing the minority party to fill most of the available seats in the hearing room with office staffers who showed little interest in the proceedings. Only a few dozen of the hundreds of pro-impeachment activists who had come to the Rayburn Office Building at 7 am in order to get seats in the Judiciary Committee hearing room were allowed in, with the rest having to remain in the hall or go to two remote “overflow” rooms to watch the proceedings on a TV hookup. Conyers also went along with a call by Republican members of the committee to have some of those who did make it into the hearing ejected simply for wearing buttons on their shirts calling for impeachment (the Republican members referred to these as “signs”), though such small personal tokens are routinely allowed in congressional hearing rooms.
It was clear that this was to be a tightly controlled and strictly limited hearing.
It was also clear that it was intended to go nowhere.