The Democrats' Subpoena Envy

Ever since 1995, when the Republicans took over the House of Representatives, Democrats have been afflicted with subpoena envy. They are not in control of any Congressional committee. They cannot hold hearings and issue subpoenas to witnesses, forcing them to appear before the committee and testify.

This puts the Democrats at a disadvantage. One of the most powerful media-attracting events is a committee investigation of a controversial subject.

Richard Nixon, a first-term Congressman, in 1948 gained national attention because of his presence on the House Committee on Un-American Activities. (Note: commie-pinko-Democrats and their dupes always refer to the committee as the House Un-American Activities Committee — HUAC — making it sound as though the committee was un-American. These lefties also refer to Peiping Duck as Peking Duck. Watch out for them.) Nixon supported Whittaker Chambers against Alger Hiss in the famous hearings. This launched his career, leading eventually to his trip to Peiping in 1972.

In 1950, an obscure freshman Senator from Tennessee, Estes Kefauver, held committee hearings on crime. The committee subpoenaed some of the country’s most famous crime chieftains. The television crews showed up in force, just as TVs were gaining national acceptance in large cities. The hearings were the Nielsen ratings winners for weeks, replacing the soaps — or, perhaps more accurately, raising the genre to a new level of public awareness. He gained so much TV exposure that in 1952, he ran for President, and would have won the Democrats’ nomination had the results of the primary system been obligatory at the convention. He became famous nationally by wearing a coonskin cap, which he had been wearing in public ever since 1948, when he was first elected to the Senate. He even made the cover of Time in his cap in 1952. It was his trademark. The Davy Crockett cap fad came in 1955 as a result of the Walt Disney TV series. He won the nomination for Vice President in 1956. He still wore his cap. But the subpoena is what made him a national figure, not his cap.

So, the power of a Congressional committee to issue subpoenas and ask questions of the recipients can be a powerful tool — of subsequent campaigns.

For a dozen years, the Democrats have had this tool taken away from them. If they win control of either branch of Congress in the November elections, there will be a non-stop series of hearings on President Bush and the Iraq war, beginning in early 2007 and continuing for as long as the evening news shows broadcast the latest revelation.


In the hearings in the late 1940s, some witnesses refused to testify. A few of them went to jail for contempt of Congress, which is a crime. (This puts millions of Americans at risk, I suppose.) Most of those who refused to testify took refuge under the protection of the Fifth Amendment: the Constitutional right of a witness not to testify against himself. This became known in anti-Communist circles as “taking the fifth.” (Liberals called it “exercising one’s Constitutional right of non-self-incrimination,” which doesn’t have the same fund-raising power as “taking the fifth.”) Taking the fifth was assumed by conservatives to be a confession of guilt.

It may also have been a way to reduce legal expenses. People may be innocent until proven guilty under common law, but as soon as someone hires a lawyer, his innocence will cost him a bundle. Anyone can take the fifth without hiring a lawyer: no muss, no fuss.

If the Democrats capture either branch of Congress, the careers of dozens of White House functionaries will involve legal fees on a scale that I shudder to imagine. They will either take the fifth or sell their homes . . . as a down payment.

There is a Presidential election scheduled for 2008. That gives the Democrats two years to remind the public of the timing (early) of the plan to invade Iraq, or the public relations story of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, or “where the money really went.”

The Democrats will torture White House officials until they talk. They will not use any methods prohibited by the Geneva Conventions. They will not send these hapless souls to prisons in Third World countries, where torture is accepted. Instead, they will let the defense lawyers do their dirty work for them. Month by month, as the bills arrive, the witnesses will be reminded of the comparatively relaxed conditions in Guantanamo.

The smart ones will take the fifth. They will hire no lawyers.

The not-so-smart ones will hire lawyers and then hope and pray that some anonymous third party will come to their financial rescue. But President Bush is a lame duck — indeed, the next two years may re-define “lame duck.” He is surely a sitting duck. When the subpoenas start going out, formerly anonymous third parties will start calling their own lawyers.

The late Hunter Thompson once wrote a book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. These days, there is much greater fear in the outer rooms of the White House than on the campaign trail.


In one of my favorite movies, Absence of Malice, in its most memorable scene, Wilford Brimley established his movie career as James A. Wells, Assistant U.S. Attorney General. In a series of masterful lines of dialog, Brimley spoke these memorable words.

I’ll tell you what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna sit here and talk about it. If you get tired of talking here, Mr Elving Patrick there will hand you a subpoena and we’ll go talk in front of the grand jury. We’ll talk all day if you want to. . . . Wonderful thing, a subpoena.

Come January, depending on what happens in November, there are going to be subpoenas. There will be a whole lot of subpoenas. If the witnesses catch the attention of Brian Williams, Katie Couric, and Charles what’s-his-name, we are going to have an old-fashioned Texas bar-b-que. It is going to last for at least two years.

Y’all come!

September30, 2006

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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