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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Elizabeth Warren Redux

Here is another take on Elizabeth Warren's dust up with Congress. Make up your own mind about this event. Personally, I don't have much sympathy for all the incompetents in Congress.

The Polite Way to Say ‘No Way’

WASHINGTON

THE denizens of Capitol Hill let out a gasp last week when Elizabeth Warren upended the natural order of things by telling a congressman that his time to question her had run out.

Ms. Warren, the Harvard Law professor who has raised the hackles of Republicans as she directs the start-up of a new consumer protection agency, was being grilled by Representative Patrick T. McHenry, a North Carolina Republican, when a dispute erupted over whether they had a deal that she would stay just one hour. Soon, the usual false pleasantries of Washington gave way to a shocking — or, depending on one’s point of view, delightful — breach of decorum.

“Congressman, you are causing problems,” Ms. Warren declared; Mr. McHenry, in not so many words, responded by calling her a liar. The upshot was a city abuzz with tsk-tsking, and in some quarters applause, at a bureaucrat’s brazen violation of a cardinal rule of the Capitol Hill etiquette book: the Congressman Is Always Right.

“She actually said that?” asked Tom C. Korologos, a lobbyist and Washington √©minence grise who has counseled countless witnesses, including Supreme Court nominees. “Now, there’s nothing wrong, if they’re going after you in some way, with saying, ‘Congressman, I disagree with your premise.’ But that’s as close as you can come to saying, ‘Hey, dummy, why are you doing this to me?’ ”

Some wondered what Ms. Warren could possibly be thinking. “Anybody who expects to spend only an hour testifying before Congress is, um, crazy,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist who spent years as a Capitol Hill aide.

Still, one could imagine a silent cheer going up around town, from all those witnesses who have been beaten up, badgered or just plain had their schedules yanked around while doing their civic duty by sitting under hot lights in a wood-paneled hearing room answering questions ad nauseam.

“For generations, there have been witnesses who have been abused by members on both sides, and so you have to think there were some people saying, ‘Atta girl,’ ” said Charlie Cook, the editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Indeed there were, though given how divisive Ms. Warren has become, her most vocal backers were Democrats. Representative McHenry was flamed on his own Facebook page by Warren supporters who demanded an apology; they also set up a separate Facebook page, titled Where’s the Apology? bearing the congressman’s picture.

“She stood up to a bunch of bullies on the dais,” said Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic adviser to senators. “Rarely if ever has protocol been breached like that. But, having said that, this is a woman whose views have been demonized beyond recognition, so I say, ‘More power to her.’ ”

Ms. Warren had little to lose. Senate Republicans have already said they will not confirm her to run the consumer bureau, so her chances of being nominated by President Obama now stand at slim to none. Yet she is hardly the first person to push back at Congress. Washingtonians well remember the lawyer Brendan Sullivan’s protest — “Well, sir, I’m not a potted plant” — when senators complained about his constant objections to their questions of his client, Lt. Col. Oliver North. And Robert Bork learned the hard way what happens to Supreme Court nominees who give combative answers.

Judge Bork was advised by Mr. Korologos, who says the judge disregarded the most important rule of testifying. “The most important rule,” Mr. Korologos says, “is the 80/20 rule: If they’re talking 80 percent of the time and you’re talking 20 percent, you’re winning. If it’s 60/40, it means you’re arguing, and if it’s 50/50, it means you’ve lost and you’d better throw in the towel.”

Being deferential is also critical, although Donald A. Ritchie, the Senate historian, says academics like Judge Bork and Ms. Warren seem to have the toughest time doing so. “They treat the members sometimes like undergraduates — or even worse, like fellow faculty members,” Mr. Ritchie said.

Congress demands such deference because it is, after all, a coequal branch of government, with oversight authority and control over how the government spends taxpayers’ money. Lawmakers are not shy about reminding witnesses from the executive branch, like Ms. Warren, of this fact. But that does not give them license to run roughshod over witnesses, said Representative John Dingell, the Michigan Democrat whose tenure — 55 years — makes him dean of the House.

Mr. Dingell, who was not at last week’s hearing, said the McHenry-Warren mess could have been avoided if they had reached a clear agreement beforehand on how long she would testify. (An hour, he says, is not long enough.) If a hearing turns nasty, he said, it is the chairman’s job to maintain decorum. Congress, he says, must mind its manners too.

“We are not a paid bunch of bullies,” Mr. Dingell said. “Our job is to get the facts.”

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