“Our government is broken,” say some politicians and pundits. If indeed this condition exists, then its “breaking” must have been an event. News reporters covering an event are taught to ask certain questions to ascertain the full story. These are questions like: “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” and “how.”
So, “Who broke our government?” “When was our government broken?” “Where did this happen?” “How did this breaking take place?” But first we might ask, “Who says government is broken?”
Primarily, it is republican politicians and pundits who have been peddling the notion that government is broken. They have been joined by others who are accustomed to repeating whatever they hear, rather than thinking for themselves. Still others may be looking at the turmoil involved in trying to accomplish anything good in the present partisan standoff in Congress, and then concluding that government itself is broken.
If our government is broken, when did that happen? Was that just lately? Or, was it earlier when we went to war based on false premises, violated international law in treatment of prisoners, ran up deficits while giving tax cuts to the rich, tried to destroy Social Security, deregulated the financial sector into speculative chaos, and wrecked the economy -- throwing the nation into severe recession? When did all that breaking happen? Who did that?
By way of clarification, perhaps we should first try to identify exactly what is broken, if anything. Government itself is NOT broken! The Congress is broken. Democracy, as it is practiced under U. S. Senate rules, is broken.
Who has broken the ability of Congress to function? Quite clearly, this is the excessive partisanship, hostile rhetoric, threats, and the unanimity of negativism of republican senators and congresspersons. Congress is dysfunctional because republicans have chosen to make it so.
Perhaps republicans have done this in a desperate attempt to keep the democratic party’s agenda from passing. In their own public declarations, they have said, “We want President Obama to fail. If we can defeat health care legislation, we will break his presidency.” They mentioned nothing about the good of the country. They have followed that line with actions of voting “No” on every piece of legislation which comes before them.” Further, they have engaged in every delaying tactic and parliamentary blocking maneuver open to them, and those have been many.
In particular, the republicans have taken advantage of Senate rules adopted during an earlier period of gentlemanly political chivalry in relationships and conduct styles. To work, Senate rules depend on common courtesy, decency, and a code of honor among gentlemen (and ladies). Without common courtesies and mutual respect, the Senate becomes hamstrung by its own rules and is unable to perform its duties of governance for the people. When one party’s constituency abandons this code, then the other cannot continue to abide by it and be effective. This is what has occurred.
The rule regarding sixty votes for cloture (closing debate, cutting off a filibuster, and bringing an issue to a vote) may not have always been the bad thing that it is now. When parties and members were restrained, and the threat of a filibuster was rare, it may have been helpful in slowing a few actions for greater deliberation. But it is poison in this partisan environment.
The 60 vote rule in the Senate is antithetical to democracy, where a majority must rule. It is counterproductive to the functioning of our American democracy, and it should be scrapped immediately. It has “broken” our Senate, and rendered it dysfunctional.
There is another Senate rule which is even worse, and must also be scrapped immediately. This is the rule that allows a single senator to hold up consideration of a bill or a presidential appointment. This rule, borne in that period of political chivalry and excess courtesy, is being grossly abused. A single senator can thwart the will of not only the Senate majority but the entire Congress and the nation. This has been happening regularly.
Our own two senators from Oklahoma have used this frequently, as a matter of personal privilege and arrogance, to hold up actions of the entire Senate, therefore the government. Senator Coburn’s offices have been picketed by crowds of interested Oklahoma young people over his hold on humanitarian aid to an oppressed people in Africa. Earlier he held up money for veterans’ health care, citing his same “principle.”
His “principle” sounds good, of course, not adding to spending without dropping some other equal amount. However, his actions appear hypocritical, since he has repeatedly voted for other personally favored expenditures not paid for or balanced, including huge outlays. Last week, a republican senator from Kentucky held up a bill stopping unemployment compensation for a half-million stressed people, Medicare payments for thousands, as well as halting highway projects and salaries of thousands of staff. The entire Senate, the whole Congress, and the whole country were frustrated by his irresponsible actions.
This senate rule seems to shift government from a rule by democracy to “rule by arrogant kooks.” Such a rule has no place in our democratic government. If we are going to fix what is actually broken about government, then we need to start by ridding ourselves of such rules.
This writer is not sure what can be done when one political party in unison decides to be uncooperative and obstructive in the democratic processes of our legislative branch. It is uncertain just what can be done when an opposition party decides to abandon the interests of the people in order to prevent the functioning of government in the hands of the elected majority party. Their obvious goal is to create an impression of inability and incompetence in the majority party, and thus to recapture power for themselves.
Only an intelligent and informed citizenry can keep such tactics from succeeding politically. Do we have such in America? That remains to be seen. Our voters have already shown themselves far too vulnerable to political con artists. We can expect better, but not with great optimism.
Dr. Edwin E. Vineyard, AKA The Militant Moderate