So Much For Free Speech
A funny thing happened to University of Illinois law professor Robert Lawless on his way to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this week. Lawless, an expert on credit and bankruptcy, was set to testify before the Committee on how the U.S. Supreme Court decisions affect people in their everyday lives. Lawless said he was looking forward to talking about how the high court’s decisions in the financial services area sometimes take away state protections against deceptive lending practices. Lawless cited the way Jon Stewart once described a regulatory development – “Yes, it’s boring. That’s how they get away with it” – to explain how he hoped the hearing would shed light on seemingly arcane rulings that have major impacts on people’s lives.
But that’s not how things turned out.
In a post describing the event, Lawless explained that he had barely begun his turn at testifying when the hearing abruptly was ended. As Matt Blake noted the day it happened, an unnamed Republican senator had cut the hearing short by using an obscure Senate rule that requires any hearing to close within two hours after the Senate convenes for the day.
The Senate almost always waives this rule, but not this time. Another unnamed Republican senator used the same rule on Tuesday, to shut down a hearing on whether coercive interrogation tactics were effective, Lawless said.
As one of the spectators in the hearing quipped afterwards, you know you have a hit a nerve when the same tactics as were used in the torture debates are being used to silence those who would speak in favor of stronger protections of consumers
Democrats on the committee were understandably upset. Here’s Lawless’ summation of the hearing, prior to the gavel coming down:
We heard heart-breaking testimony from Bridget Robb, a 34-year old mother who nearly died in front of her 6-year old daughter while receiving repeated electric shocks because of an electronic lead in a pacemaker the manufacturer knew to be defective but for which had given no notice. Because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision protecting medical device manufacturers, Ms. Robb has been stripped of the right to sue for damages because of the harm she has received. We also heard from Maureen Kurtek, a 44-year old mother whose insurer denied her coverage for necessary medical treatment although it knew her previous insurer had authorized the same coverage on three previous occasions. As a result of not receiving a needed, Ms. Kurtek nearly died, had half of her right foot amputated, lost five fingertips, and suffers from numerous painful conditions. Again, Supreme Court decisions strip Ms. Kurtek of the right to sue. Professor Tom McGarrity was there from the University of Texas to provide expert commentary on how the Supreme Court’s preemption decisions led to these results. I was there to discuss how the same trends toward centralized federal regulation in the financial services area similarly deprived consumers of important protections.
I think that gives a pretty clear picture of why someone wanted the hearing over – and fast. Maybe next up for the Committee should be considering how to keep Republican partisans from abusing Senate procedural rules to protect their own agendas. Given their tendency to cite a rule that ties hearing times to when the Senate convenes, I’d suggest getting started first thing in the morning.