Year after year the approval rating of the U.S. Congress is abysmally low. In 2012 Huffington Post reported on the findings of a Gallup poll that showed that “Americans are about as likely to trust members of Congress as they are car salespeople.” A year later Public Policy Polling found that “Congress is less popular than cockroaches, traffic jams, and even Nickelback.” After watching the hearing of the House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats on U.S.-Hungarian relations, I understand why. It was one of the most disheartening scenes I have witnessed of late.
As I indicated in an earlier post, I suspect that the hearing was staged as a result of the efforts of Connie Mack IV, the new lobbyist for the Hungarian government who in 2012 failed in his attempt to become a senator. Since Mack had been a Republican representative from Florida for twelve years, he naturally has many old friends on the Hill, including Dana Rohrabacher, a fellow Republican from California, who happens to be the chairman of this subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Some Hungarian-American leaders who were supposed to testify on behalf of the Hungarian government chickened out. Frank Koszorus, Jr. of The American Hungarian Federation and Maximilian Teleki of the Hungarian American Coalition thought that there was no reason to hold such a hearing because, in the wake of the appointments of two new ambassadors, relations between the two countries have improved greatly. I suspect that there was something else behind their refusals to testify: the person of the chairman, who is known as a strong supporter of Vladimir Putin and his ideas about the future of Russia. Teleki and Koszorus most likely figured that it is bad enough that Viktor Orbán is considered to be the Trojan horse of Putin in Europe; they didn’t want to fortify this image with some possibly pro-Russian remarks by Rohrabacher.
For a while it looked as if the hearing might not even take place. But then Rohrabacher found Kurt Volker, currently executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, as a replacement for the two reluctant supporters of the Orbán regime. Volker has had a distinguished career in the State Department and on the National Security Council. He is also something of an expert on Hungary and speaks fluent Hungarian. He usually stands by the Orbán government, and thus he was ready to testify on its behalf.
On the other side, there were two witnesses: András Simonyi, former Hungarian ambassador to the United States, and Ted Stahnke, vice president for research and analysis in Human Rights First, a non-governmental organization whose report on human rights abuses in Hungary I found outstanding. The State Department was represented by Hoyt Yee, deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.
In addition, in a highly unusual move for such a hearing, Réka Szemerkényi, the new Hungarian ambassador, was asked to deliver a short account of the state of democracy in Hungary. In excellent English, she did what a good ambassador should on such an occasion: she painted a rosy picture of Hungarian democracy.
What followed was deeply disturbing and disheartening. The Democratic members were poorly prepared, even though the Congressional Research Service had written an admirable six-page summary of Viktor Orbán’s six years in office. As for the Republican members, I’m afraid they were “briefed” by the Hungarian government instead of the Congressional Research Service. All of the information they had was most likely spoon-fed by the “political scientists/propagandists” of Századvég, Fidesz’s think tank, via Connie Mack. It was a disgusting affair. The four Republicans–Ted Poe of Texas, Paul Cook of California, Randy Weber of Texas, and Dana Rohrabacher–bullied both Hoyt Yee and Ted Stahnke. They used the occasion to bash the Obama administration’s foreign policy and to express their disgust with such liberal ideas as equal rights. They seemed to be convinced that Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is more of a democracy than the United States is–or at least it’s more of the kind of democracy they would like to see.
The testimonies of Hoyt Yee and Ted Stahnke are available online, and both contain plenty of criticism of the Orbán government. But our four congressmen were not interested in their facts. They had made up their minds way before the hearing began. Unfortunately, both Yee and Stahnke eventually became somewhat rattled and were unable to respond to some of the accusations. Rohrabacher kept accusing the State Department of using a double standard against Hungary just because the country’s current government is Christian and conservative. Interestingly, Rohrabacher seemed to be perfectly ignorant of the very controversial law on the churches, and Stahnke was unable to explain it because he was short on time.
The man who best withstood the assault was András Simonyi, who managed in the few minutes he was allotted to summarize the most blatant attacks on democracy in Orbán’s Hungary.
One can be grateful that these ignorant bullies are not responsible for the country’s foreign policy.
* * *
Anna Bayer, who was present at the hearing, decided to send the following letter to Dana Rohrabacher because of his views on the controversial German Occupation Memorial.
Honorable Representative Rohrabacher
2300 Rayburn HOB
Washington, DC 20515
Dear Representative Rohrabacher,
As an American and daughter of Hungarian Holocaust survivors, I was appalled by your comments at the May 19 Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on US-Hungary relations. Your comments during the hearing were not only factually incorrect and offensive to the victims of the Holocaust, but also constitute Holocaust denial.
When discussing the German Occupation Memorial constructed in Budapest by the current Hungarian government, you publicly said during the hearing that your view is that the issue “that they didn’t build a statue that expanded upon the victims of Hungary during the Second World War to specifically include Jews instead of everyone who suffered, that is not anti-Semitism, you should be ashamed of yourself for suggesting that it is.” The German Occupation Memorial is designed to distort the history of the Holocaust in Hungary. In 1944, the Hungarian authorities, allied with Nazi Germany, deported over 400,000 Hungarian Jews to concentration camps. Much of Hungary’s Jewish community was then murdered. The deportations were carried out with the consent of the Hungarian government of the time, with the participation of over 200,000 Hungarian citizens in the administration of this deportation.
I ask that you publicly apologize and retract your comments. You have done a disservice to your constituents, to the Jewish-American community, and those Hungarians who have worked to recognize the atrocities of the past and make sure that such a tragedy never occurs again, in Hungary or elsewhere.