Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Speaking Truth When You Have Power

Recently, Senator Al Franken was given a rather blunt message that his actions in advocating for his anti-rape bill, he had crossed a line with Republican opponents of the bill.
In a chamber where relationship-building is seen as critical, some GOP senators question whether Franken’s handling of the amendment could damage his ability to work across the aisle.
You see, instead of smiling and saying, "They're representing their constituents," or at worst, "They're doing what they need to do to get reelected," Franken challenged the PR spin of opponents to the amendment on their merits. That simply isn't done.

Seriously, when a scandal breaks about a Senator or Member of Congress, how often do you think that the underlying material isn't common knowledge on Capitol Hill? When a Senator or Member of Congress goes on a TV or radio show and makes claims that are absurdly false or stupid, how often does one of his peers point that out rather than pretending that a serious point had been made? How often have you heard the "strange bedfellows"-type story - Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy were close friends. Bad behavior is kept under wraps because neither side would benefit from full disclosure of the personal foibles of their peers. And when somebody says something absurdly stupid or just plain false, that's supposed to be treated as a necessary act to represent the voters from their district and not as a particular act of venality.

Recall how mild rebukes from President Obama had Republicans seething in their seats, with Rep. Joe Wilson engaging in a childish breach of decorum (that make him the toast of the town with the childish wing of the Republican Party)? By the twisted logic of Wilson and, really, the Senate as a whole, the more serious offense appears to have been by President Obama. The truth? Irrelevant! How dare he come into Congress and suggest that, to oppose his agenda, any number of its elected members were flat-out lying? He should have respected that they were merely representing their constituents. Nancy Pelosi worked hard to prevent a censure. (Hardly atypical of how Congress enforces its ethics rules on its members.)

This type of "collegiality" doesn't just harm the public debate, it also blinds Senators to problems in their midst. Case in point, Joe Lieberman. Any number of his peers seem to be able to convince themselves that his public behavior is somehow divorced from what he will do when it's time to vote, that their past friendship means that he'll work with them. Many who know better refrain from speaking out, or speak only in the mildest of terms, apparently lest they damage their ability to work with their peers. There's no political price to pay within the institution in sitting quietly on your hands - or even for applauding - when a Trent Lott suggests that the nation would have been better off had Strom Thurmond's been elected President on his segregationist State’s Rights ticket in 1948. The damage comes when the public hears about the comment and creates an uproar - that's why the institutional demand on Senator Franken is "sit down and shut up".

When Senator Debbie Stabenow voted in favor of a constitutional amendment against "desecrating the flag", it would have been fair to comment, "She's doing what she needs to do to get elected." It wouldn't quite be the whole truth, mind you, as the Senior Senator from Michigan, Carl Levin, voted against it. The rest of the truth is that he's a lot more popular and effective than Stabenow, and is thus a lot more secure in his seat. But still, it would have been nice to see somebody display the courage of calling her out on the vote, as engaging in the worst form of pandering. I don't believe for a minute that she was "voting her conscience" on that one. In my opinion she knew the vote would fail, so she viewed it as an opportunity to try to build some credibility with those Michigan voters who support an anti-flag burning amendment. It would have been nice if somebody from among her Senate peers had called her out on that. No, it ain't gonna happen. And do I even need to mention the likes of Michelle freakin' Bachman?

The fact is, the brand of "collegiality" that is expected in Congress weakens it as an institution and as a legislative body. We don't need Senator Franken to "learn the rules, lest he be made an outcast" - we need a lot more senators like him, on both sides of the aisle.


  1. First, whether you have raised a valid point factually or not, I refuse to ever say that "anyone" should "ever" be more like Al Franken.

    Second - I think that you just fail to fully appreciate the culture of the senate, perhaps if you'd have served in the Page program you'd get it . . . ; )


  2. Yes... all that "hands on" experience....


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