Cheap Seats 2019
Absence Makes Some Hearts Fouler - 06/19
By Rich Trzupek
Comedian Jon Stewart was in DC last week to testify before the House Judiciary Committee about renewing the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund. There were apparently a number of empty seats on the dais in the hearing room among members of both parties. This did not sit well with Stewart.
“What an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process that getting health care and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to,” Stewart said. “Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders and in front of me, a nearly empty Congress.
“Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak to no one. Shameful. It’s an embarrassment to the country, and it is a stain on this institution. And you should be ashamed of yourselves for those that aren’t here, but you won’t be, because accountability doesn’t appear to be something that occurs in this chamber.”
Though the funnyman and I disagree on many issues, his passionate support of the first responder heroes who saved so many on that awful day 18 years ago touches a soft spot in my heart. I do believe that, at his core, Stewart is a good man.
But, up to now, I had not realized how naïve a man he is as well, at least as far as understanding how our government actually functions. Stewart was obviously genuinely shocked and indignant that so many congressmen and congresswomen skipped the session, or – as some later claimed – popped in and out. This is an important issue. Peoples’ lives are at stake. How could so many representatives of the people fail to share his deep concern?
It is genuinely surprising to find that Stewart was surprised. This is, unfortunately, the way government works more often than not, not just in DC, but throughout the nation. I have testified before committees in cities as large as Chicago, before committees of state legislatures and twice before the US House of Representative’s Sub-Committee on Energy and the Environment. I cannot recall a time when my testimony and that of the others testifying with me was heard by anything approaching a majority of committee members.
The first time I testified before Congressional committee, only the chair and the ranking member were present to listen to what I and three other witness had to say. On the second occasion, a third committee member made a brief appearance to denounce me and my views in the guise of asking a question, then quickly scuttled out of the room immediately after. Once again the chair and ranking member – who are required to be there – were the only members present for the balance of the session.
No one was upset. Indeed, no one was surprised. This is the way things work. Sure if it’s a hot-button issue that’s going to attract a lot of press coverage, there’s rarely an empty seat on the dais. If there is an A-list celebrity witness, or if the witness hails from a member’s district or state, a few more seats may be filled. But otherwise, why bother? There are so many backs to scratch and so many willing to scratch yours.
Committee hearings are for staffers you see. It is they who will ultimately figure out what the member’s position on the issue will ultimately be anyway. They will do the research. They will interpret the polling. They will instruct their boss on what to say and how to say it. In a way, having the actual member sitting there, potentially forming his or her own opinions, presents something of a risk to the due application of experienced staffers’ gentle guidance.
An over-simplification? Somewhat. There are certainly elected officials at all levels of government who take their responsibilities more seriously and some who refuse to be led by the PR professionals in the background. But, those officials don’t constitute a majority. I doubt they are even a substantial minority. They are merely the exceptions that prove the rule among the ruling class.
Jon Stewart may be starting to discover that it’s never too late to have one’s eyes opened. Here’s hoping more of us are similarly blessed.