BY DANNY M. ADKISON
Tareq and Michaele Salahi don’t get invited [allegedly] to a White House state dinner but they show up anyway. Then, they do get invited to a congressional hearing and they’re no-shows.
Next time, they may not have a choice – unless they want to go to jail.
Ask a person if Congress has the constitutional power to investigate and without hesitating they will probably assert, “Of course.” Yet, the Constitution doesn’t say anything about Congress having this power. But first, exactly what does the “power to investigate mean?”
It’s probably not what you think. On its face, the power would seem to be nothing more than holding hearings, calling witnesses, and delving into a policy or event to get to the bottom of things. That might describe what an investigation is, but it is not what constitutional law texts mean when they discuss the power of Congress to investigate.
Some of the most memorable hearings held in Congress were held by the now defunct House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC]. They were a manifestation of what historians refer to as McCarthyism [who was leading the investigative charge in the Senate]. One thing that made these hearings such a threat was the power committees had to require people to appear and testify before the committee.
In spite of the Constitution’s silence, it had been assumed since the beginning of Congress that it could conduct investigations, but could it compel people to appear and testify or go to jail? It wasn’t until the 1920s that the Supreme Court gave the definitive answer to this question.
Yes, congressional committees could, like those in the judicial branch, issue subpoenas requiring individuals to appear and take questions from members. If they did not they could be detained in Congress’ jail [in the basement of the Capitol].
The Court found this authority in the “necessary and proper clause,” but it also found that the questions had to be pertinent to some pending legislation. Thus, when the HUAC sought to punish John Watkins, a labor union organizer and alleged Communist sympathizer, for refusing to answer questions the Court refused to allow him to be punished on the grounds that Congress could not “expose for the sake of exposure.”
Since then, however, the Court has changed its mind. Now, the Court will assume that if a member of Congress wants to ask someone a question, a bill would not even have to be pending to require an answer. Remember when Dee Snider [lead singer to the 80’s glam rock group Twisted Sister] was called before Al Gore’s committee dealing with the need for warnings on certain rock recordings? No bill had, at the time, even been introduced dealing with the subject, but that didn’t stop the Senate hearings.
Tareq and Michaele may be subpoenaed to testify and testify they will [or else!]. The hearings have already started, but if you saw the pictures of these so-called party crashers, the answer as to how they got into the state dinner may lie in an episode of Seinfeld.
In an episode of that sitcom [now in reruns] Jerry is dating a girl Nikki [who, incredibly, looks very much like Michaele Salahi]. Nikki gets Jerry tickets to a movie when they are seemingly sold out, persuades a patrolman not to give Jerry a speeding ticket [even though he admits to going over 100 miles per hour], and by the end of the episode has Jerry agreeing to walk her dog [even though they have split up as a couple].
Jerry explains to George, “Somehow she explained it to me and I couldn’t say no.”
George is both more direct and more general in his explanation: “Beautiful women; they get whatever they want whenever they want it.”
As is often the case, there is a serious side to the comedy. Our society places a premium on “good looks” rather than talent or character. During the bicentennial of our Constitution I had the privilege of teaching teachers from all over the U.S. as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities project to increase knowledge of that document.
One point made was that while the Constitution mentioned only three qualifications to be president, there were many informal ones [including how a candidate “looked”].
Was there anything that could be done about this? I asked the question rhetorically because I didn’t have an answer. One teacher from Pennsylvania told the class that there was a simple thing that could help this situation: give all first graders [which she taught] the same amount of attention. Don’t focus on the “pretty” ones or the best dressed ones. In other words, send the message, if only tacitly, that looks don’t matter.
On an unrelated matter, Sarah Palin was in our state last week signing her book [to some who had camped out all night in the cold]. Wait, did I say “unrelated”?
– Dr. Danny M. Adkison teaches constitutional law at Oklahoma State University and is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer