Will #MeToo Be The Senate’s Waterloo?

Something decisive will occur in the Senate this week.  Not just a nomination hearing, but a political drama crystallizing in the minds of Americans the nature of a political party, and an institution.

In a hearing set for Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider whether Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is a person of respectable character.  They will hear from a California psychology professor, Christine Blasey-Ford, who has come out of nowhere with a believable claim that in 1982 Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when she was 15.  Kavanaugh denies it.  Despite the perturbation the allegations are causing, Senate Republicans are intent on shielding the nominee.  Determined to treat whatever is disclosed in tomorrow’s hearing as irrelevant to his confirmation, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell anticipates that, after hearing from the two parties in a non-judicial setting, the committee will vote on the confirmation the very next day.

On the way to that vote, America will see how its leaders behave.  How do senators treat a woman whose personal story threatens the plans of President Trump and the Republican Party?  How considerate are they in sorting out this very unsavory #MeToo story, which the recent openness of women in discussing sexual assault is empowering?  To what extent have senators reckoned with the implications of sexual equality, or how badly are they out of step with the times?

President Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress have dug in their heels, exploiting their every institutional advantage in an effort to mute a damning social narrative and push Kavanaugh through.  Trump’s White House has become Kavanaugh’s sanctuary.  He has been holed up there like a wanted man, arming himself with the latest in dis-ingenuity.  Kavanaugh’s proxies have spread out on the news circuit, broadcasting doe-eyed astonishment that anyone could fail to see Judge Kavanaugh as squeaky-clean.  Meanwhile, Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the judiciary committee, has announced that an outside interlocutor, Rachel Mitchell, a sex-crimes prosecutor from Arizona, will spare Republicans members the embarrassment of figuring out how to talk with Dr. Ford.  A brilliant fix for a hearing where the goal is to avoid hearing anything she says.

Ultimately—and this is what the president and Senate don’t seem to get—, Dr. Ford’s challenge to Kavanaugh’s confirmation isn’t about legalities.  It’s about whether Kavanaugh is acceptable to society.   It’s about whether Brett Kavanaugh, who is rumored to have put his hand over a girl’s mouth while attempting to overpower her, is a socially respectable being.  Is he a gentleman?  Today, American society is ostracizing harassers of women because their behavior is anathema to equality.  The buzz surrounding Kavanaugh is alarmingly loud.

Over the centuries, the Senate has often exemplified dignity.  It has upheld courtesy as an ideal, as a source of inner order, as the secret of its prestige.  Tomorrow, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will be called on to receive “an inconvenient rememberer” courteously.  Yet, as #MeToo comes knocking, a blinkered and insensitive Senate cowers.

RELATED ARTICLES:
Caitlin Flanagan, “I Believe Her,” The Atlantic.
Caitlin Flanagan, “The Abandoned World of 1982,” The Altantic.

Advertisements

The Five-Hundred-and-Thirty-Five Shareholders

A color panoramic view of the US Capitol taken from the driveway circa 1898.
Donald Trump doesn’t know how to share power.  His companies are private and he has never had to be accountable to other stakeholders.  He would be terrible at running a public company.  Now he is the head of the federal government, where the key concepts are “limited powers” and inter-dependency.  Still he behaves as though he’s running the family hotel chain.  Displease the big boss and one’s head will roll.

The situation presents Congress with an unusual opportunity to reclaim its former status as a branch co-equal to the executive.  Trump’s style of administration suggests why the Framers did not go all in for an imperial presidency: to look to the present White House as a source of legislation and policy is sheer folly.  This president may be capable of reforming (that is streamlining) the executive branch, and he may learn how to defend and represent American interests ceremonially.  But, being reluctant to extend his trust to professional experts, his White House is not likely to become a font of innovative and workable legislative initiatives–which, after all, used to be Congress’s domain.

Once upon a time, the Senate was a center of intellectual excellence, where the chief leaders of the states spent endless hours in one another’s company.  It was a tight-knit group, often described as a club, where members knew one another thoroughly, and where they took a strange kind of pleasure in devising bills that would meet the conflicting demands of (wait for it) their constituencies.  The House, the Senate’s more rambunctious sibling, could not equal it in prestige and in certain periods was of such low quality that it could not sustain the interest of the press: quite different from the situation that prevails today.

What will Congress make of this opportunity?  This era could be remembered as one when one-hundred senators and 435 representatives restored Congress’s vitality, when their creative and constructive energies went into crafting workable and forward-looking legislation, and when their power vis-a-vis the presidency earned them the nation’s gratitude and admiration.   The fortunes of the nation would look less bleak if Congress’s full power to work for the good were being deployed.

Image: William Henry Jackson photograph of the Capital taken circa 1898
Published by the Detroit Publishing Company in 1949
The Library of Congress

The Rebel Angels

Senator Mitch McConnell (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
In Paradise Lost, Satan (a.k.a. Lucifer) is the leader of the forces Milton describes as ‘rebel angels.’  Satan is the most glorious of angels, but he can’t stand the idea of serving God.  He chafes at the idea of obedience.  He actually persuades many other angels, who look up to him, to wage war against God, famously declaring ‘Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.’  God puts up with Satan as long as he can but, finally angered, he quells the rebel angels by turning every last one of them into snakes.  Unfortunately, Satan, a sibilant snake, still has the gift of speech.  And, though much reduced in his status, cosmically speaking, he still has the capacity to make trouble for earthlings, which he does when he successfully tempts Eve to eat of the apple, destroying the good thing Adam and she have had going in the Garden of Eden.

Milton’s fable of the fall of Lucifer aptly encapsulates the dynamic playing out in the Senate.  The Senators, though immensely powerful, resent the President’s authority—in fact, they resent the President personally.  They simply loathe the President, and this loathing has eventually driven them to forget their duties, and their proper place in the scheme of things.  Discontent, they disdain the glories of their rightful position and their great capacity, as Senators, to effect what contributes to the betterment of our country.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, in particular, has warred against the Senate’s limited role in the selection of Supreme Court nominees.  He has militantly declared he will not do his duty, nor does he want other Republican Senators to do theirs.  He seeks to prevent the President from placing Merrick Garland on the high court, claiming that the next President will better represent ‘the people’s will.’  More recently, McConnell has disgraced himself by subjugating his own judgment on the matter to the judgment of two lobbying groups.  He falsely claims that history gives his acts legitimacy.  These are the marks of a man no longer content with dimensions of his own authority.

In truth, both the President and the Senate, as constituted, represent the people’s will.  The Senators are each delegated to express the will of their states, just as much as the President represents the people’s will nationally.  In straining to control all that happens in our political cosmology, the Senate’s ‘rebel angels’ are undermining their own prestige and the Senate’s once-illustrious reputation and authority.

Collectively, the Senate’s exercise of ‘advise and consent’ might confirm Judge Garland as a fit selection for the Supreme Court.  But wouldn’t that be a triumphant outcome, given that we live in a fallen world?  We are, as much as in Milton’s time or in Lucifer’s, ‘sufficient to stand and free to fall.’

Image:
1992 photograph of Senator Mitch McConnell by Laura Patterson,
from this source.

Marco Rubio’s problem

The GOP heap (after Scott Walker), © 2015 Susan Barsy

Marco Rubio’s problem?  He’s hasn’t done anything. Yes, he is skilled at talking and at winning elections, but he has a weak record of accomplishing.

Rubio is scrambling to be the GOP presidential candidate who benefits the most from Scott Walker’s dropping out of the race.  As I wrote the other day, a big factor for Republican hopefuls is where money and support drift as weaker candidates leave.  As they drop out, liberating resources, the market shares of the remaining candidates shift, reshaping the campaign.

Marco Rubio turned in a good performance at the debate.  Figures like David Brooks are talking him up.  Rubio has raised a lot of money.  He talks loudly about his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.  In the debate, he sought to impress by talking tough on foreign policy and trotting out his immigration plan.

Look closely, and you’ll notice that Rubio is an Obama-type candidate.  His career path is remarkably similar to the president’s, whom he despises.  A brief stay in the state legislature, then Senate election, and then  . . . (before youth fades) the presidency?  Rubio’s ambition is propelling him upward before he is ready.

Meanwhile, his lack of patience and success as a senator tells us what his presidential shortcomings would be.  Rubio wishes to leave the Senate without having figured out how to score legislative victories.  He hasn’t bothered to develop the relationships or negotiating skills that our interdependent style of government makes so necessary.  Being president would minister to Rubio’s self-image, but, when it comes to serving the nation, how effective could he be?

On immigration, for instance, Rubio is cogent because he once helped sponsor an ambitious bipartisan immigration-reform bill.  This was the impressive measure the Senate passed back in 2013.  At the time, the Huffington Post heralded it as “the most significant effort in years toward overhauling the nation’s inefficient patchwork of immigration laws.”

Republican senators proved powerless, however, to bring their more uncooperative House brethren along, so the initiative that Rubio and others had worked on died.  Now Rubio is touting his own reform plan that he asserts he could make a reality.  Given a president’s dependence on Congress, it’s doubtful he could make his claim come true.  Another young president who’s a weak party leader is the last thing this nation needs.

Yet Rubio is proud of his determination to quit the Senate in hopes of snagging the presidency.  Last week, he justified his failure to attend Senate by lashing out at a wrong-headed Washington establishment.  Though he hasn’t been able to alter that establishment as a Senator, he claims he can–if only Americans give him a bigger job.

Meanwhile, in the telling area of political endorsements, his fellow Floridan, Jeb Bush, continues to lead.  FiveThirtyEight ranks Bush at the top of the list in gaining the support of other established Republicans.  Rubio is near the bottom, indicating that Republican leaders view him much more skeptically than the media does.


Transcript of Senator Rubio’s remarks on his absenteeism
(courtesy CNN):

RUBIO: . . .  I’m proud to serve in the United States Senate. You know, when I ran five years ago, the entire leadership of my party in Washington lined up against me.

But I’m glad I won. And I’m glad that I ran, because this country’s headed in the wrong direction.  And if we keep electing the same people, nothing is going to change.

And you’re right, I have missed some votes, and I’ll tell you why . . .  Because in my years in the Senate, I’ve figured out very quickly that the political establishment in Washington, D.C. in both political parties is completely out of touch with the lives of our people.

You have millions of people in this country living paycheck to paycheck, and nothing is being done about it. We are about to leave our children with $18 trillion in — in — in debt, and they’re about to raise the debt limit again.

We have a world that grows increasingly dangerous, and we are eviscerating our military spending and signing deals with Iran. And these — if this thing continues, we are going to be the first Americans to leave our children worse off than ourselves.

That’s why I’m missing votes. Because I am leaving the Senate, I’m not running for re-election, and I’m running for president because I know this: unless we have the right president, we cannot make America fulfill its potential, but with the right person in office, the 21st century can be the greatest era that our nation has ever known.

Betsy Ross of the Capitol

A woman mends the American flag in a back room of the Capitol
“Washington, D.C.  Mrs. Georgeieanna Higgins.  Official title is Seamstress to the United States Senate, but for years has been called the ‘Betsy Ross of the Capitol.’  She is responsible for keeping the flag that flies over the Senate wing of the Capitol in proper flapping order.  This is no mean job since the flag flies night and day when the Senate is in session, which means a terrific beating from the elements, an average of 12 Flags is used each session”  (March 2, 1937)


Image:
from this source
.

Once Noble Senate

The US senate chamber in 1868 (Courtesy of Cornell University Library via the Commons on Flickr)

I don’t know that what I write here makes me a pundit, but in the wake of the election I have been hit with a strong urge to refrain from punditry—to take a break from it, at least, and let government be.

One of the evils of an excessively long campaign season is that we all develop the habit of opinionating and editorializing.  Our partisan passions, aroused for such a long period, require an effort to quiet, and we forget that there is something larger than the fate of the parties or particular people, namely our collective fate as a nation and economy.  That hangs in the balance now.

The media, even more than our political leaders, bear responsibility for having created a public culture that prizes the work of governing less than politicking.  Competent governing is not praised and celebrated; it is not longed for; it is not revered or nurtured.  No, it is regarded skeptically—poked at and doubted.  Dubious motives are assigned; obstacles exaggerated; worst-case scenarios dreamt up and embroidered.

Would the nation would better or worse off for having a moratorium on loose talk, during which all cable networks, talk shows, and editorial rooms would go dark for a few days?  The talking heads, eager for their fees and salaries, who incessantly press their stale points of view on the rest of us are one of the biggest impediments to redirection and innovation.  They are themselves one of the biggest drags on bipartisanship and governmental resolve.

The hullabaloo surrounding the “fiscal cliff” reminds me that the Senate, in its earliest days, used to meet in private.  That’s right.  From 1789 to 1794, the first senators met privately in chambers in New York and later Philadelphia (Washington DC didn’t exist then) to fulfill their Constitutional duties as they understood them, admitting no spectators, seeking no publicity.  They simply did their work and went away.

This was a perfectly legitimate style of proceeding.  After all, they had been entrusted with large public responsibilities and they knew the nation depended on their behaving in an honorable way.

The senators soon abandoned the custom of meeting in private, however, because they thought that, unless the public could look in on the Senate and begin to understand what it was all about, the body would never develop the authority and prestige that the Founders wanted and expected it to enjoy.   The early Senate was in danger of being eclipsed in importance by the House, which then, as now, was a more unruly and irresponsible body.

The Senate, intended to be the ultimate forum for resolving the nation’s most complex problems, evolved into a highly prestigious and effective body during the long period from the early 1800s until 1986, when the Senate approved live televised coverage of its proceedings.  The reservations that had made senior senators reluctant to embrace such a change were fully vindicated, for the reorientation of the Senate toward this vicarious presence has destroyed the close-knit mutuality that characterized the body, and which rewarded the difficult work of its members with commensurate prestige.

The nation’s chief executive, once the factotum of his party in Congress, has become inflated in importance proportionately.  Today, we look to the president for all things—even for the wisdom that our Founders knew could only be found collectively, in the best minds of the Senate, in its palmiest days.

Image from this source.

Lorimer

William Lorimer circa 1911 (Courtesy Library of Congress via The Commons on Flickr)

William Lorimer (1861-1934), was a rare bird indeed: a Chicago political boss who was Republican.  By the time he paused to have this photograph taken, he’d risen to a seat in US Senate, but under circumstances that steeled reformers’ determination to amend the Constitution, so that nothing of the kind would ever happen again.

Lorimer had the bored, jaded look of a man who’d been around the corner and back again.  Known as the “the Blond Boss,” Lorimer, who’d been born in Manchester, England, had risen to wealth from poverty, the son of a Scotch-Presbyterian minister who died early, leaving his family to negotiate the late nineteenth-century Chicago immortalized in works like Sister Carrie.  From the age of ten, Lorimer worked various jobs, including in the stockyards; he received negligible education.

In his early 20s, he became a street-car driver, married a woman who was Irish Catholic, and converted to her religion.  Known as a clean liver who did not drink, smoke, or attend the theater, he fathered 8 or 9 daughters, many of whom later worked for the city.

Lorimer’s determination to enter politics on the Republican side is said to have dated from 1884, when a Chicago polling place could not provide him with a Republican ballot to cast for James G. Blaine.  Lorimer became the political favorite of ethnic voters on the city’s west side, including many Russian Jews, Bohemians, and Irish who had previously voted Democratic.  Lorimer was not a reformer; he believed in competition.

He thrived by delivering on promises to supporters and friends, and by wedging himself between the Democrats and the reform wing of his own party.  Exploiting these divisions, he managed in 1908 to defeat a rival Republican for the US Senate, at a time when all Senators were chosen by state legislatures.  A year later, one Illinois state assemblyman claimed to have been paid $1,000 for his vote.  Several others joined him, claiming to have received payments from a jackpot fund set up to influence decisions in the Illinois assembly.

The allegations were investigated over the next several years by state and federal legislative committees, which could not find evidence of Lorimer’s personal wrong-doing.  But the winds of change had been blowing strongly, and eventually grew strong enough to blow Lorimer away.  Ignoring the detailed conclusions of the committees, the Senate voted to expel Lorimer in 1911.  Two years later, the nation ratified the 17th Amendment, which empowered voters to elect US senators directly.

Though Lorimer dropped dead in a Chicago train station decades ago, something of his spirit still haunts Chicago.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, from this source.

YOU MAY ENJOY:
Boss Lorimer and the Illinois Bribery Scandal,” New York Times, 1909.

The Next Political Football: Medicaid

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act has placed a spotlight on the expansion of Medicaid benefits that the legislation envisioned.  Reactions to the Court’s ruling, which gave states the right to opt out of the expansion, again illustrate the state-level differences in our political culture.  Already a number of states, notably Florida, have declared their states will not be going along, while others (including California, New York, and Illinois) have embraced the measure.

THIS INTERACTIVE MAP on the PBS News Hour website allows you to see where each state stands with respect to the plan and the number of eligible recipients who will be affected in each.

Readers may also be interested in the maps below, showing the US House and Senate votes that led to the passage of the health reform bill.  Click on the maps to see larger maps and full legends.

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/54/111th_Congress_roll_call_165.svg/256px-111th_Congress_roll_call_165.svg.png

US House vote on March 21, 2010,
by congressional district, showing yeas and nays by party.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/92/111th_Congress_1st_session_Senate_roll_call_396.svg/256px-111th_Congress_1st_session_Senate_roll_call_396.svg.png

US Senate vote on December 24, 2009, by state.

Maps courtesy of Kurykh on Wikimedia Commons.


RELATED:
Susan Barsy, Progress Isn’t Popular, Our Polity.
Susan Barsy, A Decision We’ll All Feel, Our Polity.
Susan Barsy, The Map of Federal Benefits, Our Polity.
Susan Barsy, Help Understanding the Budget, Our Polity.

The Pledges We Need

Photograph of the US Senate Chamber circa 1920

“No new taxes.”  The pledge has had a baleful effect on government, reducing Congress’s ability to problem-solve and foreclosing broad-ranging discussion of how best to increase the revenues that an established government needs.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the parties could be persuaded to take other sorts of pledges?  Such as:

We pledge to refrain from negative advertising.
We pledge to refrain from casting aspersions on our opponents or their families.
We pledge to foreswear super-PAC money.
We pledge to attend the Senate when it’s in session and to debate openly and in person with members of the other party. . . .

The possibilities are endless, don’t you agree?