A month and a half ago, I wrote about the need to reform the filibuster so that the minority Republican caucus in the Senate would not use it as a bludgeon to stop any and all legislation it did not like. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decried the abuse of the filibuster during much of the last Congress and declared that he would not tolerate it any longer. Reforms were proposed. And then reforms were watered down. In essence, Senator Reid agreed to another gentlemen’s agreement with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, where the latter agreed that his caucus would behave. This happened at the end of January.
Well, look where we are now. In less than a month, the Republican Caucus reneged on the idea of “behaving” and filibustered the confirmation of Secretary of Defense nominee, and former GOP Senator, Chuck Hagel. Outrage from the Democrats has ensued. Never has a Secretary of Defense been filibustered! This is unprecedented!
How did we end up here? Why did Senator Reid and other senior members of the Democratic Caucus wimp out? Alex Pareene provided the answer in an excellent article the other day about why the Senate doesn’t work. It all boils down to the Senate’s death-grip fealty to the idea of comity:
[T]heir tradition of deference to one another, and their high esteem for the broken institution they are members of, is what stops them from doing anything to change the way they don’t do business.
Comity. I seem to recall first encountering that word during my studies of American Civil Rights history. One did not talk about race relations or the treatment of African Americans in the pre-Civil Rights Era South, because it wasn’t genteel. Comity would be lost. I therefore associate the word with willfully glossing over problems because to discuss them would be too uncouth, too harsh, too too.
Then it hit me. The Senate is in reality Downton Abbey! Think about it. Resistance to change forms the bedrock of the series. Lord Grantham has spent three seasons so far trying his best to maintain the traditions and glories of British Empire in the post-World War I era. And each season has brought on new challenges to those traditions. One daughter marries a servant (yikes!). One daughter has a fling before marrying (no!). One daughter wants to write for the newspaper (gasp!). His lovely new son-in-law, whose own sudden wealth has kept Downton itself from having to be sold, wants to turn the lands owned by the family into something that actually Makes Money (how ghastly!) so that they don’t have to rely on poorly invested family money (say it ain’t so!).
Comity rules Downton. Lord Grantham’s first reaction to dealing with unpleasantries is to ignore them and not discuss them. Doing otherwise would run afoul of the standards of decency which he holds so dear, never mind the consequences. So, for example, any time son-in-law Matthew wished to discussed the house finances, Lord Grantham changed the subject, abruptly and obviously. When the “common” doctor contradicted the knighted doctor, and began using such coarse words as “urine” when discussing a medical crisis involving one of the daughters, Lord Grantham chastised him for using such language in front of the ladies. The knighted doctor then reminded his “lower” colleague that their job is to make their betters (the lords and ladies) happy, and spare them any unpleasantness, never mind the consequences, which in this case were severe in the extreme.
I can think of no better description for the Senate than that.
Hanging on to the glories of British Empire is proving to be a losing proposition for Lord Grantham, much as it was for his real-life counterparts in the years after World War I. Similarly, hanging on to the superficial courtesies that many see as the bedrock of the Senate is also proving to not only be a losing proposition, but a dangerous and foolish one. Because, as Mr. Pareene observed, nothing gets done.
Time to end the comity of errors. It took no time at all for the latest limp-wristed handshake agreement to fall to pieces. Blocking Chuck Hagel — who in the end will likely be confirmed next week — was only the beginning. Many fear that Republicans will use their bully minority pulpit to block any nominee to lead the newly created Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Why? They hate the agency and don’t want it to exist. They want to water it down to nothingness, rather than allow it to prosper. That’s bullshit. Voters elected the Democrats to the White House and to a greater majority in the Senate in the last election. They similarly elected a larger Democratic caucus into the House of Representatives. The only reason the Democrats didn’t retake the House was due to successful gerrymandering by Republican state legislatures. Voters elected Democrats, and it is their ideas that should call the shots.
Times have changed in the Senate. Republicans have shown quite clearly that they are more than willing to break every precedent that ever existed for the sake of maintaining power. The rest of the country be damned. Elections be damned. The only weapon Republicans have is obstructionism, a weapon they have proved very adroit at using.
We can either continue to live in Downton Abbey-land and allow comity and superficial courtesies to reign in the Senate, to its detriment and the detriment of the country. Or we can recognize that the old way of doing things no long apply and take away the Republican’s filibuster bludgeon so that the Senate can actually function.
So, Leader Reid: are you the future, or are you Lord Grantham?
© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.