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Column: Senate confirmation hearings as serious as ever

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Wait a second—Jeff Flake said what at Neil Gorsuch’s hearing?

During the third day of the confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, our junior Senator Jeff Flake asked questions that his family wanted to him to ask, including his son Dallin’s Reddit-originated question, “Would you rather fight a horse-sized duck or a thousand duck-sized horses?” and his brother’s question, “Have you ever worn gym shorts and a tank top under your robe?”

Now, I respect both of our senators, but upon hearing this information, I could not come up with a logical reason why Flake would waste the people’s time like he did. A lot of Arizonans were similarly shocked and embarrassed by it. 

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However, looking into it a bit further, I realized that it wasn’t Flake who made poor judgment about what to say, but rather the American people whose perceived image of our Senators is much higher than the reality of Senate standards for behavior. I was under the impression that Flake’s comments were out of the ordinary, but the entire hearing was laced with irrelevant comments. 

According to USA Today, Senator John Kennedy was one of many people to ask about the Judge’s fly-fishing habits, including whether he prefers a wet or dry fly. 

Senator Ben Sasse, like Senator Flake, asked a question from home; his wife wanted to know “how in the world Gorsuch is able to go so many hours at a time without peeing.” 

Senator Ted Cruz had a short conversation with Gorsuch about mutton-busting (a rodeo event seeing how long a child can ride a sheep). And to make sure he was on top of things, he was asked about the answer to everything, to which Gorsuch replied “42.” While it doesn’t excuse the fact that many of the Senators wasted time at the hearing, this list does show that Senator Flake cannot be treated like he acted alone. 

My shock at learning about the kinds of things said at the hearing shows that I probably held Senators to a super-human standard in my head. I came out of high school with an unrealistically high vision of the Senate being a “deliberative body” populated with undistracted men and women. 

I never really thought of senators as real people who enjoy making trivial comments from time to time. 

I think a lot of people feel the same way. Because it seems to be appropriate to ask these kinds of questions in the Senate, it is almost unfair to hold Flake to our higher standards when he acted within the Senate’s boundaries for acceptability.

Now, we can make an argument for whether senators as a whole should be acting like this or not? A few Democratic senators, for example, thought that there was no place for the joking behavior in a Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Similarly, the people can demand their senators either act differently or be voted out of office. 

Personally, I don’t think it is particularly bad that the senators had a bit of fun. 

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The statements made did not overtake the real issue at hand and probably made the hearing a lot more enjoyable, if we think about the senators as normal human beings. The hearing lasted for days—each of the 20 senators on the judiciary committee had 30 minutes to ask questions. The irrelevant statements were cherry-picked from hours of discussion. 

In this same way, the somewhat-controversy of Flake’s questions is blown a bit out of proportion. His fun beginning questions lasted about two minutes. Although this toed the line of being inappropriately long, the rest of the time our senator asked—from what I could understand—good and relevant questions to the nominee.. Questions included asking about tribal law and religious liberty, privacy concerns with new technology, cameras in the court room and the inappropriate deference of court decisions to large corporations like Chevron.

So, Flake isn’t individually plagued with the inability to understand a good time and place for jokes. It looks like in the Senate, any time is a good time—or at least, it is a lot freer than many of us would think.


Follow Toni Marcheva on Twitter.



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