Washington, D.C., is known for many things. Unfortunately, humility is not one of them, as was demonstrated again last week.
Last Tuesday, the Department of Transportation announced that electrical failure was not to blame for the alleged acceleration problems experienced by Toyota drivers. That conclusion — which confirmed what Toyota executives had insisted all along — was the result of a ten-month study by the best engineers on the federal payroll, including some on loan from NASA. This comprehensive inquiry should have settled the matter. It also should have left red-faced the members of Congress who last year subjected Mr. Toyoda to a righteous indignation contest masquerading as a congressional hearing.
Last week, The Hill newspaper caught up with Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), one of Toyota’s tough critics a year ago. Kaptur said she hasn’t looked at the new report. “Told of the findings, the Ohio Democrat said, ‘I don’t believe that. How can it be driver error with so many [cases]?’” Ms. Kaptor might not have read the report, but she certainly must know by now that Toyota is responsible for less than one-third of the reported unintended acceleration incidents over the past decade. She has to know that the government has confirmed only five fatalities from accelerator problems, which does not seem like “so many” in a nation whose residents own over 250 million cars.
Why couldn’t Rep. Kaptor have just told The Hill reporter, “I probably should not comment until I read the report, but based on what you have told me of its findings, it appears I rushed to judgment. Perhaps I was wrong.”
It seems that being a member of Congress means never having to say you’re sorry. This unwillingness to exhibit humility infects both parties.
For my conservative friends who find Kaptor’s response embarrassing, I have two words for you: Vince Foster. It seems like a bad dream now, but to work for House Republicans in the Clinton era was to know at least a handful of elected members of Congress who believed that the president of the United States and his wife were complicit in the murder of the White House counsel (and their close friend), Vince Foster. Not all believers were backbenchers. The chairman of the House oversight committee, Rep. Dan Burton, famously attempted to re-enact the alleged murder by shooting a pumpkin in his backyard.
Unlike Toyota’s brakes, Foster’s death was the subject of three investigations. All concluded that the clinically depressed Foster committed suicide. To this day, I have not heard of any Republican members or conservative activists offer to apologize to the Clintons, let alone Mrs. Foster or her three children, for making such ridiculous and baseless claims. It’s a shame.
Just a month after Foster killed himself, President Clinton signed the 1993 omnibus budget bill into law. The debate over that bill and the economic growth that followed its enactment should also prompt some humility among my Republican brethren. I was an intern on the Hill at the time and remember thinking that, if our opposition speeches were accurate, the American way of life was about to end. Steeped in free-market ideology, we thought — nay, we knew — that Clinton’s budget tax-raising bill would kill jobs, increase the deficit, and shrink the economy. To say our predictions did not prove correct isn’t really necessary, is it?
This final example is the most important because it suggests a level of humility that should attend major policy disputes — disputes that cannot be ended with the certainty of a NASA investigation or a coroner’s report. I do not think Republicans’ preference for a limited federal government was disproved by the economic growth of the 1990s. Nor do I think, even in hindsight, that Clinton’s budget was perfect or responsible for all of the growth that followed. All I know is that the parade of horribles we predicted never came to pass. We were wrong. And, again, we have never admitted it.
A dose of humility would be so good for Washington. It would enable both sides to recognize that they do not have all the answers. It would allow members to acknowledge when their ideology has led them to untenable positions and give them the opportunity to think anew. Humility would also make debates more civil and more honest. Then again, I could be completely wrong.
Kevin Ring is a freelance writer in Kensington, Md. He previously served on Capitol Hill as a counsel to then-Senator John Ashcroft; executive director of the Republican Study Committee; and legislative director to former Congressman John Doolittle.