WASHINGTON ― Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) drew a plum assignment in Thursday morning’s Senate hearing on the recently completed Iran nuclear deal. After the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), delivered his remarks and the ranking member, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) delivered his questions, he would be the first Republican to grill the witnesses there to defend the deal.
Risch started out by striking a conciliatory tone, telling Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz that he didn’t want emotions to seep into the discussion. He then spoke for nearly six minutes straight, calling supporters of the deal the “most naive people in history” and telling those in front of him that they “have been bamboozled and the American people are going to pay for that.”
By the time Risch was done, he hadn’t asked a single question. The hearing moved on. The world was really none the wiser.
Ostensibly held for the purposes of unearthing new information, congressional hearings instead often function as staging grounds for lawmakers to posture and pontificate.
Because Thursday’s hearing was the first on the Iran deal since the deal was announced, it was possible to expect it would be different. A complex arrangement involving multiple countries, uranium enrichment, billions of dollars in sanctions relief and regional politics lends itself to numerous questions. There are blanks to fill in.
And, to be sure, the four-hour affair had its illuminating moments. But much of the back and forth was predictably partisan or deliberately preening. It wasn’t entirely useless ― but a good chunk of it was.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), going after Risch finished, sifted through a list of countries who backed the deal at the United Nations and asked Kerry if, indeed, they supported it. She knew the answer.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a critic of the deal, pressed hard on whether sanctions could be snapped back if Iran cheated and explained why ballistic missiles would be eventually sold to the country under this arrangement. All well and good. Except when Lew attempted to offer an answer longer than Menendez cared for, he cut him off. "Don't eat up my time."
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) decided to use his seven minutes to quiz Moniz on a report about the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse attack upon the U.S. shoreline in an attempt to draw a larger point about dealing with Iran. Moniz had no idea what the study was, producing the specter of an MIT physicist being lectured about a science report by a U.S. senator.
“Whose report, I’m sorry, is this?” asked Moniz.
“The 2008 EMP Commission,” Johnson responded.
“No, I’m not, sir, I’m just not. I apologize,” Moniz said, before his interviewer launched in a lengthy explanation of the report.
“The fact that you as the secretary of the Department of Energy were not even aware of the 15 recommendations, basic recommendations….I’m highly concerned,” Johnson added.
Concerning? Perhaps. Illuminating? Eh...
After a lunch break Johnson returned to the EMP study yet again, prompting Moniz to protest: “I know something about EMP. I don’t know about that specific report.”
By then, the hearing had nearly derailed into a seminar when, in making a point about Iran’s so-called breakout time to create a nuclear weapon, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) asked Moniz about the half-life of uranium and plutonium.
“You are creating the urge for a 50-minute nuclear physics lecture,” Moniz said with a chuckle.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) used his time to pepper the witnesses on a variety of fronts. But by the end of the seven minutes, he was leaning on props. He held up a copy of The Washington Post and asked Kerry if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn't know what he was talking about when he criticized the deal. Various responses and interruptions ensued until an exasperated Kerry finally declared: "If you want to ask a question without an answer we can all run out of time."
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) followed by offering his five-part analysis of what would have happened if the United States had left the negotiating table prior to a deal. The table was set. "Well, Senator," Kerry replied, "I think you've hit the nail on the head."
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who seemed supportive of the deal, started out by letting the assembled know that diplomacy is usually done with adversaries, not allies. Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) began by declaring: "I'm outraged."
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) may have summed up the hearing best when, prior to addressing Kerry, she pleaded with her colleagues to engage in a more sober discussion that stuck to substantive issues.
"Before I get to my questions -- and I do actually have questions,” she said.