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Congress’ Human Rights Panel Is Being Torn Apart by Partisan Clashes

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There are few bastions of bipartisanship left in Congress, but the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission was one. That is, until the fight over Brazil.

More than a year after supporters of right-wing former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro ransacked government buildings to express their fury over his election loss, the commission’s two co-chairs are fighting over an attempt to give the Bolsonaro crowd a hearing to air their grievances.

It’s a dispute partly about Brazil, and partly about Bolsanaro’s like-minded friend, former President Donald Trump.

The Republican co-chair, Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, proposed holding the hearing earlier this month, billing it as exploring “democracy, freedom and the rule of law in Brazil,” according to a draft announcement I obtained. Smith insists that he is trying to help Brazilians unjustly persecuted — or prosecuted, if you prefer — by a government whose tactics in the wake of the riots have, in fairness, drawn widespread concerns.

But the Democratic co-chair, Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, saw something more sinister at play and refused to permit the hearing. He and his team point to the parallels between the Jan. 8, 2023, Brazilian insurrection and the one led by Trump supporters in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

“This is happening because the GOP no longer believes in democracy and wants to normalize far-right political violence,” McGovern said in a statement to me, noting that “those who attacked the Brazilian Congress were inspired by Trump’s insurrection.”

His team also was upset that social media posts about the hearing appeared online before McGovern had made a decision on it, suggesting that the GOP side had leaked information about the event in violation of commission procedures. Their frustration grew into fury when Smith later held a press conference with some of the people who could have testified, and who had insulted McGovern online for blocking the hearing.

The debate is unusual because it involves the Lantos commission, a panel that focuses on human rights and has long been an oasis of bipartisanship in the growing dystopia that is Congress. The commission was established in 2008 and is named after the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress. It doesn’t vet legislation the way a panel such as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee does. But it does offer lawmakers expertise in crafting bills and serves as a resource to everyone from journalists like myself to Capitol Hill staffers trying to understand rights-related crises abroad.

Two McGovern aides told me that they now worry the dispute over the Brazil hearing is a sign of future problems for the commission. “This politicization undermines the commission’s mandate,” one of the McGovern aides said. Both aides were granted anonymity to candidly discuss sensitive behind-the-scenes issues.

The worries come as a similar bipartisan institution, the Helsinki Commission — an independent government body that includes lawmakers — is experiencing its own internal rifts while facing hostility from some in the MAGA wing of the GOP.

Such disputes bode poorly for U.S. national security. Congress already is increasingly unable to make important foreign policy decisions — from confirming ambassadors to sending military aid to Ukraine — because of political polarization. When even panels such as Lantos, which, relatively speaking, has little actual power, face partisan flare-ups, it’s another sign of the deep impairment.

Tom Malinowski, a former Democratic lawmaker from New Jersey who also served as a top human rights official in the Obama administration, told me that the potential fallout from the Lantos fight affects America’s global reputation, which is increasingly suffering due to partisan swings.

Lantos commission hearings are “valuable for people around the world to see Democrats and Republicans genuinely agreeing that repression and dictatorship is bad, whether the dictators were on one end of the spectrum or the opposite,” he said.

One way in which the Lantos commission has long tried to minimize political disputes is by having the Republican and Democratic co-chairs sign off on hearings proposed by the other. Each can edit hearing notices and add witnesses to proposed panels. And until both sides agree on such elements, no information is to be shared publicly.

In its proposal, Smith’s side of the commission said the hearing would explore “serious human rights violations committed by Brazilian officials on a large scale, including judicial malfeasance; the political abuse of legal procedures to persecute political opposition; violations of freedom of speech; and muzzling opposition media,” according to the draft announcement.

Concerns about Brazil’s legal process have hit new highs among conservatives in and outside the country amid the government’s efforts to prosecute supporters of Bolsonaro and the ex-president himself. Bolsonaro’s supporters involved in the 2023 insurrection have many of the same grievances as Trump supporters did in 2021, alleging, for instance, they’re being unfairly prosecuted for trying to save democracy after a stolen election.

But it’s not just conservatives who are worried about Brazil. Brazilian authorities’ often heavy-handed response to the attacks in Brasilia and other activities of the far-right has raised broader concerns about whether, in attempting to protect democracy, they’ve become oppressive.

McGovern’s aides said they initially told Republicans that the description of the hearing and the proposed witnesses showed that the goal was to allow Bolsonaro allies to vent anger against Brazil’s government. That, they said, was a misuse of the commission. The GOP and Democratic sides also sparred over whether one of the potential witnesses faced criminal investigations, which Democrats said raised questions about his motivations for testifying.

As the McGovern aides learned more about the situation, they grew to believe it was also a way for Republicans to give cover to Trump insurrectionists — whom Trump has suggested he would pardon if reelected.

In his statement, McGovern — who has co-chaired the commission since its beginning — said it was “disgraceful” that Republicans were trying to “legitimize and amplify far-right election deniers.”

McGovern also was upset to be blasted with social media attacks after he blocked the hearing. Among those lacing into him was Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, and at least one proposed witness.

“It now appears that Republicans are coordinating directly with the leaders of that attempted coup to intimidate me,” he said in his statement.

Smith insisted in a statement to me that he’s long had concerns about human rights in Brazil, especially when the country has been under the leadership of prominent leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known as Lula. He is the current president but also held the role between 2003-2010.

“It’s unfortunate that Co-Chair Jim McGovern is uncomfortable discussing the human rights situation in Brazil, especially under Lula’s reign of terror,” said Smith, who took over as GOP co-chair in 2019. “I have had grave concerns about human rights in Lula’s Brazil dating back to the mid-2000s, when I traveled to Brazil to successfully fight for the return of a New Jersey child who had been abducted and held there for five years.” He nonetheless noted that the commission continues to function, with other hearings scheduled.

Smith made sure his side still got its say with the March 12 press conference at the Capitol.

Surrounded by a few dozen people and under the glare of the sun, Bolsonaro supporters — including Eduardo — warned that Brazilian democracy was under threat from the current government of Lula. In particular, they said the Brazilian courts have too much power.

McGovern and his team were incensed that the news conference included people who had attacked McGovern personally. While the figures did not directly go after the Democratic lawmaker during the news conference, McGovern felt Smith should not have given them a platform.

Malinowski is among those hoping the Lantos infighting over Brazil doesn’t turn into a permanent fracture, because it would rob vulnerable people of an important platform.

“It’s a place that’s allowed dissidents and human rights activists from around the world to have a voice on a big American stage,” he said.