I’m always conflicted when I watch some fat-cat miscreant being worked over at a Congressional hearing.

On the one hand, the person on the spit usually deserves it.  He or she has almost certainly violated the public trust in a way so obvious that it caught even the half-closed eye of Congress.  It’s good to see victims squirm as the senators and congresspersons pound them with questions that are more like bills of indictment.

That enjoyment is mitigated, however, by the fact that it is Congress asking the questions.  The sight of a politician clothed in righteous outrage, upbraiding someone for sleazy behavior and bad decision-making reaches a level of hypocrisy that is well beyond the reach of all but television evangelists.

The subjects of these hearings — in an effort to curry favor — generally accept their public chastisement humbly; thus the meekness of the auto executives who appeared before Congress last month in search of a few stray billions left over from the Wall Street bailout.

They were refused, ultimately, and lectured to as though they were high school students who had been caught smoking in the parking lot.  They were told that they were dumb; how dare they come to Washington in their corporate jets when they were asking for a handout.  They were told they deserved to lose their jobs and their companies to fail.  They were a black mark on the escutcheon of Free Market Capitalism, they were told.

To which our captains of industry answered “Yes, Massa,” or words to that effect.

Just once I’d like to see one of the witnesses at a hearing respond in kind.  For example, an auto executive under attack might have said:

“I may be a bad man, I don’t know.  I may even be a stupid man who doesn’t deserve the responsibilities and rewards he’s been given.  I’ll let others make those judgments.

“I do know this, however: You are not the people to make the case against me.

“You’ve gotten us into a pointless war at enormous cost, defending people who hate us.  You’ve run up the largest federal deficit in our history without a clue as to how you’re going to repay it, other than later.”

“You ignored the warning signals given off by the savings and loan scandals and the collapse of Enron, letting dodgy financial schemes proliferate unchecked until they imploded, taking the economy with them.

“And us with them too, don’t forget that.

“Have we been behind the curve in developing fuel-efficient cars?  Yes we have.  But don’t tell me we’re making cars that people don’t want to buy.

“Last year General Motors outsold Toyota in the United States by 1.2 million vehicles.  Ford sold 850,000 more vehicles than Honda and Chrysler sold more than Nissan and Hyundai combined.  Sales for those foreign manufacturers, and Mercedes too by the way, are down by almost as much as ours are this year.

“We can’t sell cars because people are afraid; they’re afraid that the economic policies you put in place will bring them to ruin.  We can’t sell cars because potential buyers can’t get loans, another gift your stewardship of the economy has given us.

“Now you want to appoint a car czar to run the auto industry?  Give me a break.  Off your record you guys couldn’t run a car wash.

“Some of you suggest bankruptcy as a remedy for our problems. Terrific idea.  If you were going to buy a $30,000 item whose resale value is an important consideration and you had your choice between a company that was in bankruptcy and one that wasn’t, which would you choose?  I thought so.

“Look, give me the money or don’t.  In the meantime I’m going back to Detroit — by plane — to keep trying to save my company.  I could use your help and so could the three million Americans who depend on the auto industry for their livelihood.”

I’m not saying that approach would work, but it would be great to see.

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Donald Kaul

Donald Kaul is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-losing Washington correspondent who, by his own account, is right more than he’s wrong.

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