Let the Games Begin!

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, July 16, 2008

For months, if not years, congressional Democrats had craved the chance to pounce on Doug Feith, the former No. 3 at the Pentagon and the brains behind the Iraq WMD claims, torture policy and other great adventures.

Yesterday, House Democrats finally had their quarry, wearing a tie almost as orange as a detainee's jumpsuit, compelled by subpoena to appear before the Judiciary Committee. And then -- an ambush! Republicans on the committee created a diversion, and Feith escaped unscathed.

Mere seconds after the subcommittee chairman, Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), gaveled the start of the hearing with the usual words -- "without objection, the chair is authorized to declare a recess" -- Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) raised his voice.

"Objection! Objection, Mr. Chairman," the backbencher called out.

Nadler was puzzled. "The gentleman wants us to sit here through votes?

"I object to granting unanimous consent to the chair," King maintained.

Nadler was forced to order a voice vote, then a roll-call vote. By the time Feith had spoken his first words, the hearing was nearly an hour old. King and his colleagues went on to declare dozens of objections, parliamentary inquires and points of order, raising concerns about a T-shirt worn by an audience member, a sign spotted in the crowd, and the need for bathroom and lunch breaks for witnesses. Three and a half hours later, Feith had become but an asterisk at what was supposed to be his hanging.

Republicans are chafing in their minority status in both chambers of Congress. Their presidential and congressional candidates lag in the polls, and their president posted a career-low 28 percent approval rating in the new Washington Post-ABC News poll. About the only weapon left in the Republican arsenal is the dilatory maneuver.

Yesterday's opening statements were done, and Nadler turned to the witnesses. "I now want to welcome our -- "

"Mr. Chairman!" King called out. "Mr. Chairman! Is there time for an opening statement?" King, having thus seized the floor, encouraged everybody "to roll our minds back to that terrible day of September 11th, 2001. . . . The day that all of us looked at that blazing inferno tumbling down in New York."

Nadler tried to return to business, but Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who had been whispering and giggling with King like a schoolboy, interrupted anew. "A point of parliamentary inquiry!" he said. He raised three questions, the last of which was a request to "summon" House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

By the time Issa finished, King had reloaded. He gave another speech masquerading as a "clarification."

The hearing was to have been a showdown between Feith and his main accuser, British lawyer Philippe Sands. Sands, in a recent book and magazine article, accused Feith of having a prominent role in the administration's discarding of the Geneva Conventions. The opening statements hinted at fireworks to come. Feith accused his accuser of "astonishing carelessness or recklessness," a "weave of inaccuracies and distortions," and "sloppy research, misquotations and unsubstantiated allegations."

Sands, in his opening statement, pointed out calmly that Feith was refuted by his own tape-recorded interview with Sands, which the lawyer offered to "make available to the committee."

But the showdown never materialized. In large part this was because of the antics of King and Issa, who were able to muzzle the Democrats, forcing them to adhere to the committee's oft-ignored five-minute limit for questioning. This proved debilitating: It takes most members of Congress that long to clear their throats.

During the five-minute questioning time for Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), he managed to speak nearly 900 words. The witnesses had time for just 72 words. When Feith tried to answer, Davis silenced him by saying, "Sir, we can't talk at the same time."

Finally, Feith got his chance. "Well, I think that's very unfair, because, I mean, that's --"

"The time of the gentleman has expired," the chairman said.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) was so rushed as he questioned Feith that the exchange was unintelligible:

Feith: "No, it's --"

Ellison: "-- that happened here."

Feith: "-- it is --"

Ellison: "Wait."

Feith: "-- it is a --"

Ellison: "Wait a minute."

Feith: "-- kind of irresponsibility."

Ellison: "-- I control time, Mr. Feith."

But not for long. When Ellison begged for another minute of time, Issa objected.

"Wait a minute," Ellison griped. "How come everybody gets an extra minute, but I don't?"

Nadler tried to get Feith to explain why, as the witness put it, "removal of clothing is different than naked." King interrupted to say that "the chairman is ignoring the five-minute rule under Rule 11, Clause 2J."

Likewise, John Conyers (D-Mich.) found time working against him as he tried to question Feith about the witness's attempt to equate torture by the U.S. government with the recent killing in jail of a homicide suspect in Prince George's County. "Have you ever been considered an uncontrollable witness?" Conyers asked.

Feith tried to answer, but Nadler felt obliged to say that "the gentleman's time has expired."

The parliamentary tactics had apparently rattled the chairman, who found himself at a loss for words as he cut off another member of the panel. "The gentleman from Iowa has insisted on strict enforcement of the five-minute rule," Nadler said. "I will have to -- I will -- I will -- I will have to -- I will have to -- I will have to -- I -- I will have to -- have to accede to the demand."

But one member of the panel seemed to have no difficulty with the five-minute rule. When it was King's turn to ask questions, he uttered only eight words: "Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I move we adjourn."

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