Congressional hearings on US-Hungarian relations “bullying, one-sided and mean”

May 22, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 6.40.14 PMSubcommittee chairman Dana Rohrabacher “denied evidence about growing authoritarianism and intolerance in Hungary”.

Reality has a well-known liberal bias. – Stephen Colbert, comedian

The performance of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Tuesday was shameful. The committee allowed itself to be used to parrot the views of the Hungarian government  . . . Tuesday’s hearing made it appear that the important House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee had simply offered their space to a foreign government to put on the show it wanted.  . . . It was the kind of victory that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán specializes in – bullying, one-sided and mean . . . We should not confuse the embarrassing performances of the members of the committee on Tuesday for real US policy, which is moving ever more resolutely toward serious consequences for Hungary.

– Kim Lane Scheppele, Professor of Comparative Constitutional Law, Princeton University

“Shameful” is how Princeton professor Kim Lane Scheppele describes Tuesday’s hearing on the future of US-Hungarian relations held by the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in her op-ed piece appearing in Hungarian Spectrum.

Ventriloquists` dummies

An outspoken critic of constitutional and electoral changes taking place in Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán since 2010, Scheppele writes that the hearing was “a dismal performance by America’s elected representatives” with “Republican members of the US Congress acting as ventriloquists’ dummies for the government of Hungary.”  She writes that subcommittee Chairman Rohrabacher and the other Republican members of the subcommittee “followed the script used by the Hungarian government to bash its critics, literally repeating the same questions, the same comparisons and the same defenses of Hungary that I have heard many times from members of the Hungarian government itself.”  According to Scheppele “the Republican members of the committee had an agenda that they relentlessly pushed for the full three hours”.

The hearing made apparent that the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee was living in a parallel universe in which they got to invent their own facts. They paid no attention to the Congressional Research Service report and its careful findings. The three Republican congressmen that stayed throughout the whole hearing . . . denied evidence about growing authoritarianism and intolerance in Hungary, which turned the representatives’ description of Hungary into something like the fact-denying opinions of some of their party colleagues on climate change, economic policy and more. 

Scripted by Fidesz?

Taken aback by the disrespectful tone of the hearing toward the witnesses, Scheppele writes “most shocking of all was the fact that the questions from the House Republicans to critical witnesses were identical to those that have been directed in the past against other critics of the Hungarian government”  by representatives of the Hungarian government itself.

The Republicans followed the Hungarian government’s usual script precisely, which raises questions about how that script was communicated to them. Or maybe members of the subcommittee were really ignorant of the agenda they were pressing, which would be a different sort of scandal. Tuesday’s hearing made it appear that the important House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee had simply offered their space to a foreign government to put on the show it wanted.

Undermining U.S. foreign policy

The expert on Hungarian constitutional law and the constitutional court writes that the hearing provided yet another example of “Republican congressmen undermining the foreign policy of the Obama administration.” and compared it to a recent letter sent by congressional Republicans to the government of Iran telling them not to negotiate with President Obama “because he could not make his word stick.”

Tuesday’s hearing misrepresented and mocked the concerns of the State Department while Republicans on the subcommittee buried witness Deputy Assistant Secretary Hoyt Yee under a barrage of hostile and irrelevant questions that he could not possibly have anticipated because they required him to discuss other countries that were not on the hearing’s agenda. The committee Republicans seemed to be willing to allow a NATO ally – and a country where the United States has worked hard to promote democracy through multiple presidential administrations of both parties – to slide into autocracy so long as this autocratic government promoted Christian conservative values.

Takeaways

Observing that “we should not confuse the embarrassing performances of the members of the committee Tuesday for real US policy”, Scheppele identifies “two important takeaways” from the hearing:

1. The prepared remarks of DAS Hoyt Yee were more critical than any prior State Department statement has been to date about Hungary. After all, it is the State Department that is charged with articulating US foreign policy, not the House Foreign Affairs Committee, so Yee’s statement represents current policy. It linked Hungarian democratic weaknesses at home to its ability to be a reliable member of NATO: “Since internal weakness invites nefarious influences from the outside, NATO needs all of its members to be internally strong.” That is why the state of Hungary’s democracy will continue to be of concern to the US government.

2. The Congressional Research Service prepared a report for the hearing, which was extremely critical of Hungary. The CRS has a reputation for being neutral, factual, and non-partisan. The report shows that the “fact assessment” arm of the US Congress has found that Hungary’s critics have truth on their side. This will have a larger influence than anything that the committee members said on Tuesday because it is what everyone looking for a neutral source on Hungary’s present condition will cite.

Scheppele, who gave testimony to the Congressional Helsinki Commission chaired by Senator Ben Cardin in March 2013, writes that “Chairman Rohrabacher got many of his facts wrong, and many dangerously so, but, since he controlled the chair, no witness could challenge them”.

Dana Rohrabacher or Dana “The Church Lady” Carvey?

Scheppele notes that at one point Human Rights First’s Tad Stahnke wiped the self-righteous smile off of Rohrabacher’s smug face by mentioning the Hungarian government’s attacks on churches, a week known fact about which Rohrabacher appeared to have no knowledge “despite the fact that many of (Rohrabacher’s) colleagues signed a letter to the Hungarian government in 2011 protesting the cancellation of the legal status of hundreds of religious organizations and backing up the State Department concerns on this issue.”

In response to Stahnke’s explanation that the Hungarian government is rewriting Hungarian history through monuments, textbooks and museums to say that the Germans alone were responsible for the Holocaust in Hungary, “Rohrabacher mocked the witness and pointed to the existence of open synagogues as the only evidence that was necessary to show that charges of anti-Semitism are baseless.”  Scheppele observes that in denying all evidence of officially stoked anti-Semitism in Hungary, Rohrabacher was “following the Hungarian government’s line that it is open-minded and tolerant while only the far-right Jobbik party is anti-Semitic”.

Grace under pressure

In Scheppele’s opinion, former Hungarian ambassador to the US András Simonyi did “a masterful job on Tuesday, holding his own as a witness in a show-trial-like situation” by focusing on “the Hungarian government’s refusal to recognize any limits on its powers and the way its non-transparent deals with Russia threatened to undermine European alliances, including the EU and NATO”.

Scheppele did not comment on the statement made by former US ambassador to NATO, Kurt Volcker, Executive Director of the McCain Insitute (whose benefactor famously accused Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in December 2014 of being a “neo-Fascist dictator” ).  The reason for this may be that Volcker’s comments were not submitted beforehand.  Nor did she comment on statements made by U.S. Helsinki Commission co-chair Chris Smith (R) who was allowed to make a statement as a kind of “special guest.”  Nor does she comment on the lengthy statement made by Hungary’s ambassador to the United States, or the fact that, unlike the expert witnesses following her, she was not required to take questions from the panel.

At one point Rohrabacher claimed that attacks on Hungary were politically motivated because its Fundamental Law begins with the statement “God bless the Hungarians”.  In this point Scheppele writes:

Actually, virtually all of the criticism of this opening line of the Hungarian constitution focuses on the fact that the constitution uses the word for “Hungarians” that covers only ethnic Hungarians and not all citizens of the country. So the constituent power invoked in the constitutional preamble fails to include Jews, Roma and members of other ethnic groups who are Hungarian citizens while it also includes ethnic Hungarians outside the territory who are not even citizens. That is why this statement raised red flags to many of us – not because it mentioned God. But the committee did not seem to have a clue about this issue.

Rebuttal

Scheppele devotes the second half of her op-ed piece to answering many of the questions posed to the witnesses who often found themselves either shouted down or simply denied the opportunity to speak for “lack of time” despite two of the five expert witnesses originally scheduled to testify withdrawing at the last minute, to Rohrabacher’s chagrin.  The dearth of “witnesses for the prosecution”, however, did not prevent Rohrabacher from condemning US foreign policy towards Hungary.  The low point of the hearing was when Rohrabacher told the witness from Human Rights First he should be ashamed of himself for calling the Hungarian government anti-semitic when, in fact, Stahne had said nothing of the kind, either in his opening statement or in his response to questions.

Checks and balances

Chairman Rohrabacher argued that the Obama Administration has singled out Hungary for criticism even though it is no different than many of the US’s allies. He asserted that the UK has no more “checks and balances” than Hungary has – so why pick on Hungary? (The UK is the Hungarian government’s favorite example, too.) But can he really know so little about the government of both places? Yes, the UK has many more checks and balances than Hungary. While the UK, like Hungary, has a parliamentary system in which the parliament elects the prime minister, it also has an upper house – unlike Hungary – as well as a fiercely independent judiciary – unlike Hungary. And it has well-functioning independent accountability offices that can call the government to heel, unlike Hungary. Plus the UK has a robust party system with real choices, a free media and a strong and independent civil society, unlike Hungary. It’s a ridiculous comparison.

Misleading comparisons

Chairman Rohrabacher, backed by Congressman Weber, then argued that Bulgaria and Romania were more or less in the same league, democratically speaking, as Hungary, but they badgered DAS Yee about why the US wasn’t also picking on them. They should have known that both Bulgaria and Romania were let into the EU with asterisks. Neither country fully complied with EU criteria upon entry and both are still under the supervision of the EU Cooperation and Verification Mechanism to ensure their continued progress toward EU standards, which they have not yet met. Hungary, which sailed through without question into the EU more than 10 years ago, should not be in the same league with Bulgaria and Romania because it started off much farther ahead in its democratic performance. The congressmen were right that Hungary is no longer clearly ahead of Bulgaria and Romania, but the comparison is misleading. It’s not, unfortunately, because Bulgaria and Romania have gotten so much better. Instead it is because Hungary has gotten dramatically worse. Since when is an exit by one of its allies from the family of unproblematic democracies of no concern to the US government?

Gerrymandering

Chairman Rohrabacher also excused the current Hungarian government for gerrymandering the last election because gerrymandering happens in the US too. Yes, both countries gerrymander, but there are big differences between the gerrymanders. In Hungary, a single party gerrymandered the whole country at once, with absolutely no input from any opposition party; in the US, gerrymanders in national elections happen at the state level so there is variation in who captures the process across the country. Plus it is a violation of American election law to exclude all opposition parties from the process of districting, which is precisely what happened in Hungary. In Hungary, there is no judicial review of the district maps to check for unduly self-serving gerrymanders; in the US, court review of districting is routine. Not all gerrymanders are the same. Yes, the US is bad on this – but Hungary is far worse.

A different world

Chairman Rohrabacher seems to believe that the US and Hungary both single out politicians for unfair treatment when they are in opposition. If he thinks his party is badly treated under a Democratic administration, I wonder what he would think of being in a parliament where an opposition party would have no chance to introduce bills, make amendments, or even debate most proposals of the government – and where they cannot even see the bills far enough ahead of time to know what they contain before the governing party calls the vote to pass them. Or where any attempt to protest the exclusion of opposition legislators from participation in the legislative process comes with hefty fines against individual members who try to make their views known. I suspect he would think that that was a different world.