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No truth, no consequences: if Congress wants to discourage testifiers from lying, maybe it should ask them to tell the truth.

Before politicians take office, they are sworn in. Before witnesses testify in court, they pledge honesty. New citizens must swear their allegiance to the flag. High school students filling out college applications must attest to their truthfulness. Some states won't even let you drive unless you first take an oath. There is no limit, it often seems, to the venues in which Americans lean on the oath to steer their consciences to honesty--with one glaring exception: the hearing rooms of the United States Congress, where only a handful of the thousands of witnesses interviewed each year are required to take an oath before testifying.

Pick up your morning paper and you'll see why this is more than an itsy-bitsy problem. Congressional inquiries of bureaucrats, agency heads, and others are the linchpin of investigations from unraveling Iran-contra to unearthing the health risks of breast implants to exposing the illegal dumping of nuclear waste. In terms of public interest, the need for honesty in these inquiries is about as enormous as it gets. Unfortunately, in terms of private interest, the incentive to lie in those hearings can be equally gargantuan. Imagine the klieg lights glaring in your face as, say, the hard-nosed Henry B. Gonzales leans forward and starts to grill you. Imagine being asked to answer questions that will implicate your boss, your friends, or worse, your own leadership and integrity. Now imagine knowing that if you fudge the truth, forget the facts, or even tell a whopper of a lie, not much will happen to you if you're caught. You are imagining the current state of affairs on Capitol Hill.

Of course, it's thanks to the effectiveness of certain congressional hearings that the public now knows about some of the costliest and most ethically disturbing government and private-sector scandals of the decade. But the absence of the oath has made getting to the bottom of those scandals far more strenuous than it should have been, and far more expensive to taxpayers. Today, you're supporting a vast bureaucracy of congressional staffers whose job it is to pick through the responses of a parade of witnesses, culling the truth from the white lies and the black ones. Why should the burden rest with them? Asking congressional testifiers to swear to tell the truth requires no new staff, takes virtually no time, and doesn't cost a dime. And while it obviously won't render the lie obsolete in the Rayburn building, it might help reverse an incentive system that has made lying to Congress one of Washington's more enduring traditions.

Of course, lying to Congress, oath or no oath, is still a punishable offense, one that can carry a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison. But lawyers agree that a perjury case can only be proven in court if the witness had been sworn in: Having stated the oath for the record, witnesses accused of lying cannot later claim they were unaware of a legal duty to tell the truth.

Yet it's not simply as a legal deterrent that the act of swearing in makes sense. It also serves a symbolic function: a weighty reminder of one's obligation to the truth. For those witnesses who are unaware of the federal statutes banning lying to Congress, the simple act of uttering the oath is likely to conjure up images of a jail door slamming shut behind them. The oath also adds a moral heft to testimony by poignantly reminding bureaucrats that whatever allegiance they feel towards their superiors or their agencies, and whatever fear of retribution haunts them, they must consider a higher loyalty--to their country and their consciences. As judges have long understood, many people will rise to that ethical challenge.

"I think sometimes with all the television cameras and the sound bite questions that people ask, people often forget where they are," notes John Grabow, a former assistant legal counsel for the Senate who now teaches law at Georgetown. "Giving somebody the oath really impresses upon them the seriousness of the forum and their responses."

That psychological signal obviously won't alter the behavior of the determined or inveterate fibber. But for the average congressional witness struggling with his conscience, the oath's simple but powerful message might occasionally be a pivotal one--just the nudge he needs to do the right thing.

Lie detectors

No doubt, some who appear before Congress are struggling with their consciences more than others. Of the two types of fibs floated before congressional committees--the Lie by Omission and the Outright Lie--the latter is perhaps less common, not only because few people like lying outright, but because those lies are often easier to smoke out. Still, that fact hasn't kept some from taking their chances. In June 1990, for instance, when a House Government Operations subcommittee requested documents from the Commerce Department detailing administration dealings with Iraq prior to the Gulf war, Commerce officials-who were not under oath--doctored the data before handing the documents over. Deleted from the submitted papers was information about $1 billion worth of trucks sold to Saddam for military use, as well as the names of other departments, including Defense and State, that had approved the sales. Only after a further painstaking investigation did Congress become aware that it had been snookered.

The blackest of all lies, however, and the toughest to catch, as Alfred Lord Tennyson once said, are those that are half true. And on Capitol Hill, they are also the most common: Testifiers with something to hide often dance around the truth simply by selectively presenting information.

Observe how one Agricultural Research Service official, Dr. Mary Carter, weaved her way through a series of questions posed by Rep. Ron Wyden during a 1991 committee hearing that probed a series of exclusive agreements between the federal government and the Bristol-Myers Squibb Company. The drug company had been granted exclusive access to rare, publicly owned yew trees to develop the anti-cancer drug Taxol. (Yews are the only known source of Tax01.) Wyden was examining, among other things, whether the federal government had been overly generous to the drug company. But Carter dodged even Wyden's simplest questions, which was odd because she had been a key player on the issue. After four questions--three of which were essentially unanswered--Wyden was left little choice but to move on to the next witness.

WYDEN: How long is it going to take to produce a medicinal form of Taxol from the tissue culture?

CARTER:... I am not sure of the definition of medicinal" so I can't answer that question ....

WYDEN: What is the likelihood of finding an alternative supply [of Taxol] from ornamental shrubs?

CARTER: I am not qualified to answer that question .....

WYDEN: [W]hen do you believe that service [of nursery-grown yews] could come on line as a viable source of Taxol ....

CARTER: I am not familiar with that work at all.

WYDEN: Let me direct this to you, Mr. Overbay ....

For the bureaucrat, there are plenty of good reasons to keep Congress at ann's length with a vague, unrevealing response--and the best of them is money. Say you're a NASA bureaucrat testifying about the space station. If you step up to the mike and honestly explain that the station's prospective payoffs can't possibly justify the massive investment being made, those congressmen are going to cut NASA's budget and you and your buddies might wind up out of a job. Better to respond to questions--any questions-with sunny yet vague reports of the space station's stellar progress and promise.

And at a baser level, evasion is used simply to prevent public scandal or embarrassment. What bureaucrat wants to wind up as a cautionary tale on the Federal Page of The Washington Post? That fear apparently motivated the Navy to use evidence selectively and distort facts to Congress during its investigation of the 1989 explosion aboard the USS Iowa that killed 47 sailors. The original, now discredited, testimony presented to Congress by Navy officials stated that sailor Clayton Hartwig purposely set off the explosion in an attempt to kill everyone aboard the ship. The Navy conveniently failed to tell Congress, however, that independent examiners reviewing the evidence believed the explosion was more likely to have been an accident. It took a further investigation by both the House Armed Services Committee and the General Accounting Office to bring that crucial piece of data to light.

Unfortunately, when government officials hedge, Congress isn't always so well positioned or motivated to call their bluff. The average senator sits on six committees and subcommittees and reps take on as many as 11 panel assignments, leaving them barely enough time to show up at the hearings, let alone conduct lengthy cross-examinations or background searches. Of course, some conscientious legislators-- like Reps. Gonzales, Mike Synar, and Senators Howard Metzenbaum and John Glenn--will occasionally latch onto an issue and stick around long enough to grill a witness or two (especially if the TV cameras are rolling). More often, though, it's one lonely member, the panel chair, who sits through the entire subcommittee hearing.

Congress' inability to play truth police isn't what you'd call a new problem. But it wasn't until the lies of Vietnam and Watergate were exposed that Members became aware of its extent. Legislators found themselves struggling fruitlessly to obtain accurate body counts from the defensive military and, from the even more defensive Oval Office, the truth about Rosemary Woods' 18-minute tape gap and the players behind the Saturday Night Massacre. Yet the lesson Congress learned from those scandals was only half fight. They beefed up their ability to expose the lies, but they neglected to also demand that bureaucrats tell the truth. Today there are nearly 32,000 Hill staffers who, as part of the General Accounting Ofrice, the Congressional Budget Office, the Office of Technology Assessment, and various congressional oversight committees, keep an eye on the executive branch.

Still, with buildings full of auditors, Congress can only skim the surface: They're responsible for overseeing 3 million federal workers in 13 agencies. A sole subcommittee of the House Government Operations Committee, for example, is assigned to cover seven agencies and a federal department. "No 10 committees could know everything that's going on down there," says one aide with the Environment and Energy subcommittee, "particularly if it's an agency that's doing something that it doesn't want Congress to know about."

Hearing aids

Hire more police? Congress' three oversight agencies already cost taxpayers about $500 million. So why not compel the executive to be open and honest in the first place? Not only might the oath change the minds of witnesses once they take the stand, but it could even affect their work before they get there--making them think twice about how they do their jobs. A HUD official who knows he may soon be facing a committee under oath just might think twice about signing off on that housing contract slated for his boss' buddy.

Impressing the urgency of honesty on witnesses could also allow Congress to reduce its cosfly oversight of the executive branch. it's not that we'll ever outgrow the need for an oversight body like the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), but if Congress had greater confidence in OMB's forthrightness, the mammoth CBO wouldn't need its current 226 employees and $27 million budget.

So the oath makes fiscal and ethical sense in theory. But would it really work? Fortunately, we have a lab to test it out--the few congressional committees that both require sworn testimony and aggressively investigate.

Under congressional rules, any member holding a hearing is free to require an oath, but only a few representatives bother. One of them is Michigan Rep. John Dingell. His Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee has a history of insistence on truth, no matter how powerful the witness called before it--a stance that sends a clear message to testifiers. By turning up the heat on witnesses over several months of follow-up hearings, Dingell's subcommittee discovered, for instance, that former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Anne Burford had withheld key documents (which they suspected would show the EPA cut sweetheart deals with clean-up contractors) from several congressional subcommittees during the Superfund investigations in the early eighties. A few years later, Dingell's committee nabbed former Reagan aide Michael Deaver for knowingly lying to Congress about his lobbying activities after leaving government. (Deaver was later convicted of perjury.)

But the oath's advantage is not just to help in prosecuting artful dodgers; it's in impelling testifiers not to dodge in the first place. "I've had people who were witnesses before our subcommittee tell me that it did make a difference to them knowing they were going under oath," says an aide in Synar's energy and environment subcommittee, another committee that requires the oath. "They were much more careful about preparing their testimony. It just had a lot more weight and significance to them."

Of course, requiring the oath won't mean an end to fibbing. But it will at least send a potent message to those who take the stand. Government lying these days--from Vietnam to Iran-contra--isn't just widespread; it's expected. One recent survey showed that 63 percent of the American public has little or no confidence that government officials talk straight. Perhaps the best way to reverse this trend is through constant and forceful reminders to government officials that they have a higher duty than to protect themselves or their superiors. And no reminder is more effective than the six words: "I swear to tell the truth."
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Author:Hickox, Katie
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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