Congressmen not at their best: Hearing on U.S.-Hungarian relations

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.

Photo by Anita Köműves / Népszabadság

Photo by Anita Köműves / Népszabadság

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.

Sincerely,

Anna Bayer
Washington, D.C.

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gdfxx
Guest

The video recording of the hearing can be seen at this link: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/62465061 . It starts at the 43:42 mark (until then it’s blank).

petofi
Guest

“But our four congressmen were not interested in their facts. They had made up their minds”…

Because, I dare say, they had had their pockets made up.

What is the surprise here: does anyone doubt that the long arm of Hungarian corruption can reach a few sad-sack congressmen?

(Lessons learned in a dingy basement…)

buddy
Guest
Very good summary of the hearing, Éva. Rohrabacher gave a shameful, dishonorable performance – intentionally distorting people’s words and arguments, and simply making things up out of whole cloth (such as bizarrely claiming that support for gay marriage was the real hidden reason why Stahnke and Simonyi opposed Orbán). And I thought Rep. Weber came off like an even bigger moron, if that’s possible. But I was most disappointed with Volker. For someone who is supposedly an expert on Hungarian issues, it is clear he is either being paid to be a shill for Orbán, or he simply does not understand what is happening in this country. His whole attitude was like, “nothing to see here folks, trust me, Hungary’s doing great.” Yeah, right. That said, I think that Rep. Poe did in fact make some good points (as well as a few stupid ones). He wanted to know why the US should be involving itself in Hungary’s internal affairs, and also if it serves US interests to openly criticize Hungary, or if doing so just creates a backlash of anti-American sentiment and increases pro-Russian sentiment. I think that these are valid concerns for the US, but unfortunately this disgraceful… Read more »
Member

Rohrabacher, Putin’s yankee bitch, probably received his orders straight from the Kremlin. Give a little support to the only guy from the EU, Orban, who was willing to talk to Putin.

I guess now the question is what did we learn from this?

I think this “incident” clearly shows that this isn’t the way to fight Orban. We have to grow up.

Guest

I wonder how on earth could Kurt Volker, the executive director of the McCain Institute, support the Hungarian government wholeheartedly when John McCain himself, just last December called Orbán a “neo-fascist dictator getting in bed with Vladimir Putin”?

István
Guest

The fact that Max Teleki was a no show at the hearing was a reflection of generally pro-Orban offical American Hungarian community’s uncomfort with the flirtation with Putin. Probably even more important for the offical representatives of our community is the defection of Lajos Simicska who has filled the investment pockets of some in our community with sure winning deals. In a situation like this it is probably best to hide.

Ron
Guest

Does anybody know where I can find this six page summary on Viktor Orbán’s six years in office by the Congressional Research Service? Or provide a link? Btw I try to find it in http://www.loc,gov but every time I kick out, due to technical difficulties (code 500).

Guest

Replace the comma with a dot.

Ron
Guest

Thank you, but it seems that this report or summary is not made public.

tappanch
Guest

The NET debt of the Hungarian (central) government was 85.5 billion euros on March 31, 2015 – a new quarterly record, according to the Hungarian National Bank (MNB).

The GROSS debt stood at 109.8 billion (as counted by the MNB) or at 81.1 billion (as counted by the Treasury) .

The debt by MNB includes the 9.5 billion from private retirement accounts that were nationalized in 2011 and spent by the Orban government completely in 2011-2013.

http://www.mnb.hu/Root/Dokumentumtar/MNB/Statisztika/mnbhu_statisztikai_idosorok/mnbhu_hazt5/ahtadatok_hu.xlsx

http://www.akk.hu/ktgvetesadossag.ivy

Remark: download the MNB data now, because they can be accessed for a few days only after publication

nwo
Guest

The hearing I think demonstrates a number of sad truths. (1) Much of what Congress does in “hearings” is pure theater for narrow domestic audiences. (2) Fundamentally, the U.S. [and I blame the Obama administration for this] does not care about Hungary specifically, nor really Eastern Europe; while there are serious professionals at State, foreign policy as run out of the White House is completely uninterested. The damage from this indifference will last past this Administration. (3) Given the lack of interest by others (and frankly given how insignificant Hungary appears to be), the Hungarian Govt. and its closest (paid and unpaid) supporters can frame the argument as it sees fit. As long as Hungary does not stray too far from US policy on the issues the US really cares about, nobody in Wash could care much about the undermining of democracy and free markets in Hungary itself.

petofi
Guest

I think people are missing the play. You cannot have blanket condemnation of Orban because you play into Orban’s hand that the West is against Hungary and the country has no choice but to go with the East (Russia). I think the US response to things Hungarico is to show moderate support in order to give the average Hungarian hope–inspite of the wirlwind of Orban wind to the contrary–that Hungary has a place in the Western heart. In this kind of counter-balancing act, men like Mack and the Rorschach have their uses.

Hentes Géza
Guest

Orban is apparently having a great time being a country bumpkin — which is his image and who are his target audience among whom is still very popular, he is one of us really not like those urban effeminate, leftist liberals.

Rough translation of an old xenophobic saying: Potato is not a dish (is no food) and tót (the derogatory term of Slovaks) are not human.

I guess Slovaks are just shaking their heads like WTF poor crazy Hungarians have apparently nothing left just this idiocy pushed by the prime minister.

http://martonbede.tumblr.com/post/119519046794/krumpli-nem-etel-tot-nem-ember

An
Guest

Orban (through his lobbyists) is successfully exploiting the opportunism of some Republicans. The Republicans in the committee simply used the opportunity to bash Obama’s foreign policy (and to bash the administration in general), scoring political points with the few who pay attention to such theater. They are getting ready for 2016. I have the feeling this hearing was not about Hungary at all.

I feel bad for the experts who fell victim to this political theater.

Orban will be able to exploit American domestic political games until a Republican administration comes into power. I am not sure if such an administration will be more accepting of Hungary’s cozy relationship with Russia, but even if Orban will be able to play a Republican administration, it won’t last long. He managed to alienate the a Republican government in his first term, and I am sure he will do it again.

petofi
Guest

Orban fools absolutely nobody in the international community: he fools only his minions who already have their nationalistic blinkers firmly in place. Orban always plays to his audience at home and cares not others think…that is, with the exception of his boss…

petofi
Guest

@An

Orban ‘exploits’ nobody. Orban is a nothing: a fart in the wind. He might think that on the great stage he is positioned between Russia and the West; but he’s just an experimental football being kicked hither and yon by the biggies. Unfortunately, it suits both Russia and the US to keep the EU at less than its full potential, and that affords the Great O some wiggle space. But it’s temporary at best.

spectator
Guest

Actually my impression was that those congressmen tried to fulfil some or other obligation, nothing more. Accordingly, there was quite a few ‘strange’ remarks, which clearly represented their ‘level of readiness’ on the subject.
Like:
“Jobbik is a far right party…”
“And how about the far left (parties)?”

A “what”???
In Hungary?

I mean, one can joking, – I do it most of the time – but come on, in the Congress?
And for what end, please?

However, it didn’t worked.
Anyone with half wit – me! – could have figured out that the whole charade nothing but hogwash.

(And man, when a congressman couldn’t even formulate a question properly – it speaks volumes!)

I missed the abuse of the Roma minority in Hungary, and I liked Simonyi’s candour – and now we know, that nobody really cares, and we know that it goes both ways. Oh, well…

Member

Among the many remarkable things in this article is that the executive director of the McCain institute acted as one of the main propagandists of the Orban clique. Didn’t McCain himself call Orban a ‘neofascist dictator’ not long ago, to blast Obama’s for the appointment of yet another political appointee to the ambassador post in Budapest (in my view rightly so)?

Where is McCain himself in all this, actually? How on earth does he let his Republican congressional colleagues get away with mischaracterizing ‘neofascists’ as conservative, Christian democrats unfairly persecuted by Obama?

The man has as much credibility as a cucumber.

szegszeg
Guest

I guess Volker is a ‘real-politik’ guy and not an elected politician. He also seems to be a typical member of the American foreign policy, intelligence establishment about the members of which movies were made, books were written. They invariably seem very confident, even visionary, well-educated, with great credentials and in the know and then invariably in the end they turn out to be completely clueless.

He like all ‘smart’ Americans think that he can outsmart the locals (ie. Orban’s people) because I guess in this case he understands Hungarian, have some local contacts. Such a confident American would never admit (even if you told him point blank) that it’s the other way around. Like with that famous Afghan intelligence asset (the prize of the century I guess) who was so reliably pro-American that he/she (I can’t remember) blew up a dozen of American intelligence officers, I guess Volker cannot even imagine that it is him that is being played by the locals, ie. Orban’s minions.

More importantly Volker knows that the US has no scruples and never has, maintaining close alliances with even bloody dictators and Orban is just a gulash-dictators, so what’s that big fuss about him?

Member

This is totally expectable. The current Hungarian is a Republican’s wet dream. Orban has done to Hungary many of the things the Republicans want to do to America – 1) flat tax so the rich get richer; 2) plenty of benefits for their corporate buddies, which brings wealth to their own pockets; 3) engineering the electoral system so they can have a totalitarian state with the appearance of democracy. Other common goals Orban is moving to if the EU will let him – 1) instituting white supremacy (under the name of Hungarian Nationalism), including limiting immigration and rewriting history; 2) instituting the death penalty; 3) cutting back on government assistance to the less fortunate citizens; 4) cutting back health care benefits to all.

petofi
Guest

What many fail to realize is the logical consequence of lowering money to Health care and the like–to wit, Orban is leading the country to mandatory euthanasia at a proscribed age (I would guess it to be 80) to lessen pensions and health care costs. Knowing the divisiveness that exists in Hungarian society, many of the young would be for it as more money would remain for their concerns, not to mention an earlier receiving of their inheritance.

Civil war between the generations–the Brave New World to come according to the Heroic Orban The Great.

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