Perhaps it is ungenerous to keep noting -- over and over and over again -- that our current Republican-led Congress is too dysfunctional and lazy to work on solutions to pressing problems like the potential public health threat from the Zika virus or the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Turns out, when you take a look, you find congressional committees are hard at work on all sorts of pressing issues they can talk about when they are campaigning through the charred remains of districts and states mauled by capitalism and their own inattention this fall. Let’s read about a couple of them!
We have already heard this week about the right-wing freak-out over reports that Facebook has been censoring conservative sources in its Trending Topics news widget. But it’s worth revisiting for a couple of quick updates:
On Thursday, the Guardian reported on Facebook’s methods for manipulating what topics show up in the Trending widget. In doing so, the paper revealed that the company relies primarily on the top stories that are running on 10 major outlets. Two of these outlets are Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. But Facebook usually looks for stories that are leading on five of the 10 news sites. So while the company has conservative news sources in its mix, the fact there are so few means it won’t carry stories on the topics that animate conservatives, like how Obama is the most lawless president ever or Obamacare is the greatest imposition on freedom since slavery was abolished.
One might suggest that the problem here lies not with Facebook, but with a conservative media that often promotes nonsense from an alternate reality. Unfortunately, many of its readers are also elected congressional representatives. So Sen. John Thune has demanded that Facebook provide answers by May 24 to a list of questions that can be boiled down to “Why isn’t your company promoting news stories that are often exaggerations and flat-out fabrications to your users?” Additionally, Thune directed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to make company representatives available to meet with staff members from the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which he chairs. You can bet there will be hearings, probably before the Senate goes on a six-week summer break starting in July.
Zuckerberg has already agreed to meet with “leading conservative figures” to explain Facebook’s news aggregation process. You can bet your last nickel at least some of those figures will be members of Congress. So while Puerto Rico’s debt crisis lingers and the island suffers its first Zika-related microcephaly case, congressional resources are going into forcing Facebook to pay more attention to whatever vomit the Daily Caller publishes.
Zuckerberg will likely be polite and humor these conservatives, but let’s dream of a world where he tells them, dramatically, like something out of an Aaron Sorkin script, that Breitbart is not an actual news source and he won’t promote its slobbering pro-Trump agitprop.
Also this week, the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee announced it might impeach John Koskinen, commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service. Koskinen has been in conservatives’ sights since 2013, when news broke that the IRS may have improperly targeted conservative advocacy groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status.
For all the outrage directed at the IRS over the scandal, it became clear very quickly that what conservatives saw as a plot to steal the 2012 election by scaring their activists away from engaging in political activities was really just a shortcut taken by an understaffed, underfunded bureaucracy to try and fulfill its duties of enforcing election laws. The Justice Department and the FBI investigated and reported back to Congress that nothing even close to criminal had occurred, and that the whole thing could be chalked up to poor management.
But because conservatives have been screaming for blood for three years now, the Judiciary Committee has to put someone’s head on a platter and deliver it to the Republican base. So instead of working on literally anything constructive at all, it is going to put on what is essentially a show trial to pillory Koskinen over a bureaucratic fuck-up caused partially by the Republican-led Congress refusing to give that bureaucracy sufficient resources in the first place. While it might be right and proper for the head of the IRS to take the fall for poor management, the fact that Congress will expend time and resources trying to destroy him first in public hearings, just to score some points heading into election season, is gross dereliction.
Finally, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) is still running her farcical hearings on the controversy over the doctored Planned Parenthood videos released last summer by the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress. This week, the panel investigating the matter, which she chairs, issued a whole bunch of new subpoenas, to people and clinics that had nothing to do with the original “scandal.”
Now, one would think the fact that investigation after investigation by local law enforcement has led only to charges against the makers of the videos, and not any of the clinics run by the organization they intended to smear, would lead smart congressional representatives to conclude that maybe they should spend their limited time in Washington on something else. Unfortunately our congressional representatives are people like Marsha Blackburn. So her panel will spend time in the month of June deposing the subjects of this recent batch of subpoenas. Because nothing is more important than salvaging something from what was basically an enormous con job.
Also this week, the president signed a bill passed by both congressional chambers, in a rare moment of comity, to designate the bison as the country’s official national mammal. But I suppose we shouldn’t roll our eyes at this. After all, any debate that takes time away from pursuing sham investigations into Planned Parenthood or the IRS or the Benghazi attack (yes, Rep. Trey Gowdy is still pursuing that) is time well used.