Giving Witch Hunting a Bad Name

04/01/2011 07:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2011

Sometimes legislative hearings are long and boring. Sometimes they are excruciating. Yet rarely are they embarrassing.

I think yesterday marked a first in terms of a blatant effort at intimidation and retribution against the American Association of Retired People (AARP) for having the temerity to support health care reform.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Wally Herger (R-CA) and Committee member Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA) issued an investigative "report" that was short on facts and long on footnotes. At 243, it was almost an average of ten per page for items that were inconsequential, mostly matters of public record, and beside the point. They proceeded to attempt to discredit AARP since the organization supported the Children's Health Insurance Program since it would be against their financial interests. They then turned around and suggested that AARP supported health care reform because it was in their financial interests. The Republican storyline was that somehow reforming Medicare Advantage was not in the interests of American seniors, when three quarters of American seniors now pay $90 a month extra because of the excesses of an unreformed Medicare Advantage program. Far from representing a downward spiral, the committee has heard evidence that Medicare Advantage enrollment is up, premiums are down, and that good work is being done to improve the quality of the service. Yet because AARP supported these reasonable reforms, the organization was hauled before a public hearing in an effort to discredit its work.

This stunt was unprecedented during my tenure in Congress, smacked of intimidation that harkens back to the McCarthy era, and sets a dangerous precedent. The issues raised in the hearing of complexity and having advocacy as well as public interest, in addition to various lines of for-profit activity, could have been leveled against AAA of the United States and its many affiliates in every state, as well as against dozens of businesses and product lines. Hopefully we won't do that, but that is exactly the unfortunate precedent that was established by this hearing. There are lots of areas that are ripe for investigation of the abuse of tax exempt funds. For instance, there are some charitable and educational institutions that pay truly outlandish salaries, far in excess in what was referenced in AARP's case, and are voracious money making machines. There are political activities that would clearly appear to violate the line into direct partisan advocacy and shouldn't be used with tax exempt funding. Truly, there are lots of worthy subjects for Congressional investigation. AARP is not one of them. It was a discredit to the Committee's Republican majority to have undertaken this spectacle.

I suppose the people who were subjected to it can take some small measure of satisfaction that it was on April Fools Day, but one fears that some of the people behind this hearing are actually serious.