Professor Kim Lane Scheppele of Princeton University doesn’t need an introduction to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum or to anyone who is interested in Hungarian constitutional law or politics. Here is her take on the hearing held by Dana Rohrabacher, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
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Usually, I write about the dismal state of Hungarian democracy. But today, I will write about the dismal state of American democracy.
I went to Washington Tuesday to attend the hearing about Hungary before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats. You can see the hearing and read the witness statements for yourselves here.
The hearing had a much higher profile than one might have expected. Fully nine Congressmen showed up and stayed through much of the hearing, which counts as a big turnout on Capitol Hill. In the audience, there was standing room only. Once the hearing began, however, it became obvious that the Democratic and Republican sides of the committee were not evenly matched nor was the committee interested in what the witnesses had to say. The Democratic members of the committee did not really understand why they were there, but the Republican members of the committee had an agenda that they relentlessly pushed for the full three hours.
Republicans hammered home their point that the US is unfairly picking on Hungary because it has a conservative government that adheres to Christian values. Hungary has entrenched in its constitution respect for fetal life, traditional marriage and belief in God, they pointed out, suggesting that the Obama administration was criticizing Hungary because it does not share these commitments. According to committee Republicans, the US ignores worse violations of democratic principles in other countries but, with its criticism of Hungary, has singled out unfairly a country that has been a loyal friend to the US. They argued that the Obama government’s increasingly critical policy toward Hungary is nothing more than a politically motivated campaign. Nothing to worry about in Hungary, they argued — it’s just conservative.
The performance of the American Congress on display at Tuesday’s hearing was not something to be emulated by any other democracy. It started with the disrespectful tone of the hearing toward witnesses – with Republican Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher of California leading the way – and continued with the ignorance of the members of Congress who should have known better about the subject of their own hearing. 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 – including me – by representatives of the Hungarian government itself. (For evidence of that these ways of attacking critics are not new and have been the Hungarian government’s line for years, see my earlier responses to those same questions here.
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.
In addition, the hearing provided yet another example of Republican congressmen undermining the foreign policy of the Obama administration. In its audacity, the performance of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Tuesday was only a step below the recent incident in which congressional Republicans wrote to the government of Iran to tell 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.
But two important things came out of this hearing – both more consequential over the long-term:
- 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.
- 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 what everyone looking for a neutral source on Hungary’s present condition will cite.
Those are the two important takeaways from the hearing. We should not confuse the embarrassing performances of the members of the committee Tuesday for real US policy, which is moving ever more resolutely toward serious consequences for Hungary.
That said, the hearing was a dismal performance by America’s elected representatives. It appeared to be a victory for the Hungarian government, if only because the belligerent committee chair engaged in frequent monologues so only the Hungarian side of the story – which he presented – actually got out. It was the kind of victory that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán specializes in – bullying, one-sided and mean. It was a demonstration of “gotcha” politics and depressing to see that the Hungarian government’s unfair tactics toward its opponents were transferred in every particular to Republican members of the US Congress who became the ventriloquists’ dummies for the government of Hungary.
For example, one of the witnesses was asked to recite the opening lines of the Hungarian constitution. Not surprisingly, he – being American – did not have the Hungarian constitution committed to memory. So the committee member triumphantly quoted the line: “God Bless the Hungarians.” And then he gave a lecture about how critics objected to the invocation of God, which was for him evidence of that the attacks of Hungary were politically motivated.
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.
Former Hungarian ambassador to the US, András Simonyi did a masterful job Tuesday holding his own as a witness in a show-trial-like situation. He focused 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. Tad Stahnke from Human Rights First eventually got Chairman Rohrabacher to look a bit less sure of himself by mentioning the Hungarian government’s attacks on churches, which the congressman did not seem to know anything about (despite the fact that many of his 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).
Chairman Rohrabacher got many of his facts wrong, and many dangerously so, but, since he controlled the chair, no witness could challenge them.For example, he denied all evidence of officially stoked anti-Semitism in Hungary, following the Hungarian government’s line that it is open-minded and tolerant while only the far-right Jobbik party is anti-Semitic. In response to an attempt by witness Tad Stahnke from Human Rights First to explain 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.
Chairman Rohrabacher was oblivious of the fact that surveys show levels of anti-Semitism in Hungary and a fear on the part of many Jews in Hungary about their futures there. He also didn’t seem to know that 30 of his Jewish colleagues in the US Congress had written a letter to Prime Minister Orbán protesting the Hungarian government’s rewriting of history again backing up the State Department’s expressed concerns. Chairman Rohrabacher’s denial that Jews in Hungary have reason to be alarmed was not a particularly good demonstration of his solicitude toward religion – or his colleagues.
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 (Chairman Rohrabacher and Republican members Randy Weber and Ted Poe from Texas) 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. Stephen Colbert used to say that “reality has a well-known liberal bias” which is what these committee members seemed to believe. And so they were having none of it.
In fact, Chairman Rohrabacher and his allies on the committee did even worse than engage in denying facts that the Congress’ own research arm established. They 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.
I was in the audience, but only the official witnesses were allowed to speak. So let me give Chairman Rohrabacher some answers to his questions, given that he did not extend the courtesy to the witnesses to do so. By now I know all about these questions, since Hungarian officials have asked me the very same questions so often.
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.
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?
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.
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.
I could go on, but you get the picture. 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 and in so doing, showed what dreadful shape American democratic institutions are in.