Ms. Bachmann as Air Traffic Controller in a YouTube World

When the only way people could watch Congress was via C-SPAN, Congressmen confronting those testifying before their committees rationally, if often boringly, made speeches. Their calculus was surely that someone flipping through C-SPAN would have higher odds of seeing them in action if the Congressmen took most of the allotted time.

But YouTube has changed all that and some Congressmen have been slow to adjust. This week, I watched three Republican Congress(wo)men ask tough questions of Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner. Committee chair Barney Frank, to allow everyone to ask questions, limited each to 5 minutes. This is standard. Congressman Ron Paul and Congressman Ed Royce used most of their time to give short speeches. This left them little time to ask questions and then to follow up. That was too bad because Ron Paul got into a back and forth with Ben Bernanke about how panics were handled before the Fed existed. Paul might have been able to put Bernanke more on the spot than he did.

Similarly, Ed Royce asked a tough question of Tim Geithner right near the end and, in his follow-up, said, “If you let them [big companies] go bankrupt, you’d actually then have market discipline and you wouldn’t have to worry about this–offsetting all of this.” Geither didn’t have to answer because the time was up. Although the YouTube video doesn’t show it because it cuts off 2 seconds too early, I saw it live and Geithner has the grin of the cat who ate the canary because the time limit let him off the hook. He would have been on the hook had Royce left more time.

One Congresswoman who gets this is Representative Michele Bachmann. She asked a series of questions, going back and forth between Bernanke and Geithner, first about the constitutionality of their actions (which Geithner avoided by saying that Congress had given them authority) and then, once she saw she was getting nowhere, about other aspects of the bailout and about which banks get Federal Reserve money. She reminded me of when I’m listening to the back-and-forth between Air Traffic Control and the pilot on Channel 9 on United Airlines. Her rat-a-tat-tat questions caused Bernanke to give rat-a-tat-tat answers and she covered more ground. She did a lot in 5 minutes.