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Former Rep. Mickey Edwards and Incumbent Sen. Mike Lee: Have Confidence In The People; Don’t Fear & Bypass Their Congress

"Washington DC - Capitol Hill: United States Capitol"

"Washington DC - Capitol Hill: United States Capitol" by wallyg on flickr

A former member of the United States House of Representatives:

On the day I was sworn in as a member of Congress, all of us “newbies”—including Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, Dan Quayle, David Stockman, and Jim Leach—were a single band. But moments after taking the oath of office, we were divided into rival teams: first came the vote to elect a new speaker, then to adopt House rules written by the majority, then to consider the membership of committees, with party ratios decided by the majority. From that moment on, during the 16 years I served in Congress, and every day since my last term ended, I have seen the United States Congress as it actually functions, not as a gathering of America’s chosen leaders to confront, together, the problems we face, but as competing armies—on the floor, in committees, in subcommittees—determined to dominate or destroy.

Sound familiar?

That’s Mickey Edwards of Oklahama speaking, a Republican with experience in Party leadership, who left Congress in 1993. He’s done us a great service by honestly recounting his insider experiences in Congress – something we too-rarely see – to try to bring genuine reform to that institution.  Edwards is perceptively and courageously focusing, of necessity, on ending the money-driven Party vs. Party wars that have been allowed to overrun the place. As ‘cmaukonen’ first noted here, Edwards has just written a piece for The Atlantic, that I highly recommend, entitled How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans; An insider’s six-step plan to fix Congress, from which the above excerpt is taken.

Those who are concerned about our increasingly-unchecked presidency would do well to consider one major benefit of diluting the power of Party in Congress as advocated by Edwards:

By thinking of the House and Senate in constitutional rather than partisan terms, we would eliminate party-driven links between Congress and the president and avoid the spectacle of legislative leaders acting as though they were either members of the president’s staff or his sworn enemies. The Constitution intended the legislative branch to be separate, independent, and equal; to be the people’s voice; and to exercise, when necessary, a check on the executive, an obligation rendered moot in the context of party-versus-party governance.

But we don’t need to rely only on ex-Congressmen to get an insider’s sense of the Party-driven dysfunction of Congress today. As I‘ve recently noted, some independent-minded freshmen Senators, aided by a few veteran colleagues, have of late been making similar points with refreshing candor and passion, in some cases directly and courageously challenging the majority Party’s operation of the Senate (regrettably, so far these valuable, explicit critiques have been publicly – as opposed to privately, as indicated below – heard only from minority Republicans).

For example, late on Thursday, July 21, the following floor exchange took place between veteran Jeff Sessions of Alabama and freshman Mike Lee of Utah (a member of the widely-demonized, informal “Tea-GOP” caucus in Congress):

Mr. SESSIONS. Well, I agree with that, and it is just odd to me–and contrary to the heritage of the Senate–for the majority leader to assume as much power as is being assumed now. I am ranking member on the Budget Committee, and essentially the Democratic leadership told the Budget Committee not to even mark up a budget this year even though the statutes of the United States in the United States Code require Congress to have a budget.

[…] We are being blocked from even being able to discuss it while people meet in secret over at the White House with the Vice President, with the President, and a few others meet with a group of Senators. Nobody elected them, but they are good people. If they want to meet, that is fine. We need to be seeing legislation, actual bills we can take to committee and score and see how much they cost.

[…]

Mr. LEE. Absolutely. Absolutely. Look, the American people understand that power is most dangerous in government when it is consolidated into the hands of a few people. It becomes even more dangerous when that power is wielded under cover of darkness.

The great thing about sunlight is it illuminates and it disinfects. We need that illumination and that disinfectant during that process, because it is corrupt. A process that allows something of such profound importance to be decided by a handful of people, who tell their colleagues: You plebeians don’t worry about it; this is for us high-minded people; we will decide; you will follow; and we will do it in such a way that you won’t have time to read it, to review it, to debate it, to discuss it; this is corrupt, and it has to end.

Mr. SESSIONS. Mr. President, I think what the Senator has said is sadly too truthful. I do believe this is a corruption of the process. I believe it has been happening over a period of time since I have been here. I have seen it happen more and more. Both parties have done a lot of this, but I do believe it has reached a new height this year.

[…]

Just yesterday, I think it was, Senator Reid was complaining about the House going home this weekend, and promising we would stay here and we would work. Now, all of a sudden, anybody who stays here and wants to vote on a bill that passed by a substantial majority in the House of Representatives, he says is acting–he says the bill is anathema to the Senate, and senseless, and not worth our time to talk about. How does he get to decide this?

Mr. LEE. He gets to decide it only if we allow him to decide it. We outnumber him, and if we vote contrary to his will, we can overrule him. If enough Members of this body are willing to stand up for truth and justice and the American way, debate and discussion and the rule of law, this thing he is trying to do to us won’t happen. We can have actual debate and discussion.

What Senator Sessions is referencing – with regard to Majority Leader Harry Reid’s abrupt termination on Friday of the Senate’s consideration of the first and only binding measure to be proposed on the Senate floor for dealing with the federal budget and the debt ceiling – is revealed by the following three excerpts of Reid’s floor comments last week.

Harry Reid, speaking on the Senate floor just after 2:00 p.m. on Monday, July 18th:

Mr. REID. […]

The Senate has no more important task than making sure the United States continues to pay its bills for preexisting obligations such as Social Security.

I have spoken to the President’s office today. Actually, I had a phone call scheduled with him, and he rescheduled it for later. But I have talked to his people, and he understands the importance of our meeting our responsibilities. Because of that, we are going to stay in session every day, including Saturdays and Sundays, until Congress passes legislation that prevents the United States from defaulting on our obligations.

I have spoken to the Republican leader. He understands the necessity of our being in session. We have a lot to do, not as many things as normal but extremely important things that are going to take time. So I know it is maybe inconvenient to have people rearrange their schedules, but this means Saturdays and Sundays and Mondays we have to be in session continuously.

Harry Reid, speaking on the Senate floor in the early evening of Wednesday, July 20th:

The majority leader is recognized.

Mr. REID. […]

There will be no more rollcall votes today. Tomorrow, I am going to move to proceed to the bill that we call the Cut, Cap, and Balance bill received from the House today. Under the rules of the Senate, a cloture vote on the motion to proceed will occur Saturday. Therefore, I expect a cloture vote sometime before lunchtime.

I am committed to allowing a full and fair debate on this bill. I want the proponents and the opponents to have plenty of time to air their views. If the proponents of the bill would like to have the vote sooner, they can let me know and we will try to work something out. There may be efforts to try to advance that vote. As far as I am concerned, we should have a full and fair debate, and I look forward to that.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The minority leader is recognized.

Mr. McCONNELL. […]

I also share the view of the majority leader that we should have a vigorous debate over cut, cap, and balance. I look forward to being here Saturday to vote to proceed to that bill.

Mr. REID. Mr. President, I suggest the absence of a quorum.

Harry Reid, speaking on the Senate floor just after 9:00 a.m. on Friday, July 22nd:

Mr. REID. Mr. President, following leader remarks, the Senate will resume the motion to proceed to the bill H.R. 2560 [“Cut, Cap, and Balance”]. The time until 10 a.m. will be equally divided and controlled between the two leaders or their designees. At 10 a.m., I will be recognized to make a motion to table [to kill] the motion to proceed; therefore, Senators should expect a rollcall vote at approximately 10 a.m. To accommodate Senators on both sides, this vote will take a little longer than usual.

I say to you, Mr. President, and to everyone within the sound of my voice, this is an effort to move this piece of legislation off the floor. It is interfering with the negotiations between the White House and the House of Representatives, and it is without merit. This is a motion to table. It is a vote on this bill. And we on this side of the aisle are going to look at every vote cast. We feel comfortable where we are on this issue, and I would suggest to my Republican friends that they should look at where they are on this issue. This is a very, very bad piece of legislation. Anyone voting for it will have to respond in many different ways to the people of their State.

[…]

Mr. REID. Mr. President, in about an hour we will vote on the Republicans’ so-called cap, cut, and balance legislation. As I have said before–in fact, just a few minutes ago–this is one of the worst pieces of legislation to ever be placed on the floor of the U.S. Senate. It violates the spirit of our Constitution and certainly what we are trying to accomplish here in Washington, and we as a Senate refuse to waste even one more day on this piece of legislation. We have 11 days left until the United States simply stops paying its bills, and, frankly, we have wasted too much time already. The U.S. House of Representatives needs to know this legislation has expired. It is gone.

[…]

So we must move on, Mr. President. And I want to be very, very clear: There is simply no more time to waste debating and voting on measures that have no hopes of becoming law.

[…]

We all know there are talks going on between President Obama and Speaker Boehner. I wish them well. We await their efforts. What I am told, there will be revenue measures in that. If that is the case, we know constitutionally the matter must start in the House of Representatives.

Thus, after idling for hours after the 10:00-10:45 a.m. Party-line vote Friday morning to table the Cut, Cap, and Balance bill, at 2:45 p.m. Friday, 7/22, the “no-time-to-waste” Senate adjourned for the weekend, not to return until 2:00 p.m. on Monday, with nothing on Monday’s agenda except votes on two district judge nominations at 5:30 p.m.

[As of 4:30 p.m. Monday, the Party Bosses in the House and Senate are apparently in agreement on a way to raise the debt ceiling – coupled with trillions in budget cuts over ten years but without “cuts” to  Social Security or Medicare/Medicaid, details vague or unknown.  And they apparently have been in agreement since Saturday afternoon, according to Mitch McConnell on the floor at 2:15 p.m. Monday – because, according to Harry Reid on the floor shortly after 2:00 p.m. Monday, Reid and Pelosi “met Republicans [McConnell & Boehner/Cantor, presumably] all the way.” But the President apparently subsequently (sometime Sunday evening) balked and refused the deal because, under it, the debt ceiling would be reached again before the next presidential election – something that today Reid is implying is now also the position of every Democratic/Independent Senator as well (no “short-term” debt ceiling increase will be allowed by them to pass the Senate).]

By idling the Senate (with the lockstep help of every member of his Democratic/”Independent” Caucus), apparently simply to defer to the President’s political calculations and conceit surrounding his campaign for re-election, Harry Reid is – with his routine abuses of power as Democratic Majority Leader – clearly displaying the temperament of an Aristocrat,  as the term was described so well by Thomas Jefferson almost two hundred years ago:

“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last one of Aristocrats and Democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.

Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, 1824. ME 16:73

Or, as Jefferson put it ten years earlier:

Whether the power of the people or that of the [aristocracy] should prevail were questions which kept the states of Greece and Rome in eternal convulsions, as they now schismatize every people whose minds and mouths are not shut up by the gag of a despot. And in fact the terms of Whig and Tory belong to natural as well as to civil history. They denote the temper and constitution of mind of different individuals.

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:279

This timeless distinction of Jefferson’s ought to help make clear why Aristocrats like Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and Nancy Pelosi seem to consider allowing twelve whole elected Members of Congress (the rumored “Super Committee”) to follow in their private wheeling-and-dealing footsteps, to be a generous expansion of the top-down, closed-door White House huddles and Gangs of Six for which their child-like Congressional charges ought to be grateful. Never mind how these Party-run schemes deliberately avoid the tried-and-true democratic machinery of the House and Senate, and continue to imperiously overturn the balance of power that the American people created with their votes last November.  How else, for example, to interpret what John Boehner said ten days ago:

By Russell Berman – 07/14/11, 11:48 PM

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Thursday said “there are too many people” in the White House negotiations over raising the debt limit. “The room’s too big,” Boehner said in an interview with Fox News host Greta Van Susteren. “There are too many people in there trying to negotiate what is a very difficult, could be and will be a very difficult agreement. There are just too many people in there pouring cold water on virtually every idea that gets thrown on the table.”

President Obama has convened five straight days of [closed-door] meetings with eight congressional leaders from the House and Senate, along with Vice President Biden, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and several White House aides. Boehner did not say who he thought did not belong in the room, and a spokesman for the Speaker would not elaborate.

Freshman Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, on June 28, 2011:

But what kind of process is this? A few people talking behind closed doors, far from the view of the American public, is that the process that is going to decide the fate of America’s financial situation, of our financial future? Is this how the U.S. Government is supposed to work? I don’t think so. Of course not.

Unfortunately, this has become business as usual in Washington. As a manufacturer, I know if the process is bad the product will be bad. Business as usual in Washington is a bad process.

And Speaker Boehner is evidently a main driver of the “Super Committee” or “Super Congress,” whose flaws Ryan Grim, to his credit, immediately perceived and conveyed (as did others soon after) in his scoop:

WASHINGTON — Debt ceiling negotiators think they’ve hit on a solution to address the debt ceiling impasse and the public’s unwillingness to let go of benefits such as Medicare and Social Security that have been earned over a lifetime of work: Create a new Congress.

This “Super Congress,” composed of members of both chambers and both parties, isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Constitution, but would be granted extraordinary new powers. Under a plan put forth by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his counterpart Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), legislation to lift the debt ceiling would be accompanied by the creation of a 12-member panel made up of 12 lawmakers — six from each chamber and six from each party.

Legislation approved by the Super Congress — which some on Capitol Hill are calling the “super committee” — would then be fast-tracked through both chambers, where it couldn’t be amended by simple, regular lawmakers, who’d have the ability only to cast an up or down vote. With the weight of both leaderships behind it, a product originated by the Super Congress would have a strong chance of moving through the little Congress and quickly becoming law.

[…]

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has made a Super Congress a central part of his last-minute proposal, multiple news reports and people familiar with his plan say.

This is not to say that creating a properly-constituted “Joint Select” Committee of Congress to openly study this issue and to propose solutions is necessarily a bad idea – select committees are, if anything, too infrequently established these days by Congress.  But such a committee – like the statutorily-created Joint Committee on Taxation – would need to represent the current balance of power in the House and Senate (majority-Republican for its House participants, majority-Democratic for its Senate participants), and any recommendations that a simple majority of the committee might reach must absolutely be open to full repudiation, complete overhaul and revision, or full endorsement, through a full and fair debate and amending process involving the rest of our representatives in the House and Senate, after the committee has reported out its findings.

However, such a democratic legislative process is something that is already being assiduously avoided under existing regular order by the Aristocrats of both Parties, as Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee lamented recently, while making it clear that at least some of his Democratic colleagues, though mum in public, are also complaining about this behind the scenes, to him, if not to their Party leadership:

Mr. CORKER [speaking on the Senate floor 7/14/11]. […]

I think we all understand that, look, the debt ceiling is going to be increased, and it is going to be increased in such a way that both sides of the aisle have the ability to campaign against the other respective to their bases.

But the fact is, our great Nation is in decline because of the elected leaders in Washington. Our great Nation is in decline because of this body and the way it is acting, the House of Representatives and the way it is acting, and the White House and the way it is acting.

[…] I had a dinner this week, Monday night, with six Democrats and five Republicans. I will not mention their names to impugn them in any way. But all of them expressed tremendous frustration with the way this body is being run. Basically, most Senators in this body are nothing but two-bit pawns–two-bit pawns–as a political fight is under way basically to lay out the groundwork, if you will, for the 2012 election. That is what is happening right now in this body, and I think we all know that.

[…] I do not think this great country was created the way it was so one side of the aisle got it exactly the way they wanted it. I think this body was created to be “the greatest deliberative body in the country.” Yet we do not do that. We do not act that way. We do not debate tough issues. We hide–all of us–we hide and we let our leadership concoct ways to keep us from doing the tough things we need to do.

The fact that we cannot even have a budget on this floor to come out of a committee, when, obviously, there is a majority–and I am not even pointing fingers at the other side; I think both sides are equally problematic in this because both sides, it is evident to me, are going to allow us to go to a spending bill today without a budget, but the fact that we cannot even bring a budget to the floor, when committees are stacked in such a manner that one side does have the majority, to me, is incredible.

[…]

If we had passed a budget and had the tough debates about revenues and expenditures, we would not be in this no-win situation right now as it relates to the debt ceiling, and we all know that. But we want to hide behind that.

The same deliberate avoidance of democratic self-government and accountability is in evidence in the chillingly-undemocratic provisions of previous and pending “trade agreements” promoted by the President and Congress – by the Aristocrats of both Parties – on behalf of Global Corporate profits, as this recent explanation by Senator Casey, regarding the proposed South Korea “free” trade agreement, details:

The second question I ask is, Will this agreement help create a level playing field after enactment? I believe this agreement, South Korea agreement, will fail to create a level playing field for our workers and our companies. Modern trade agreements do more than cut tariffs. These agreements contain hundreds of provisions that make substantial changes to nontrade policies, and the Korea agreement is no exception. According to the group Public Citizen, these nontrade provisions limit the authority granted to elected representatives of the American people over product and food safety, financial regulations, health care and energy regulations, patent terms, and even our tax dollars that can be spent by the government. The agreement allows Korean exporters to take investment disputes out of courts and into unaccountable and secretive international tribunals through a process known as investor-to-state dispute system that is similar to NAFTA.

Additionally, the investment chapters were signed prior to the current financial crisis back in 2007. These specific chapters include rules that prohibit either country from imposing firewalls between the sorts of financial services one firm may offer to limit the spread of risk, for example. Important protections put in place after the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 could potentially be challenged under the pending agreement.

– Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, July 7, 2011

Louis Fisher, an obvious “democrat,” in the concluding chapter and paragraph of his 1985 book Constitutional Conflicts Between Congress and the President:

The importance of Congress is its capacity for diversity and openness (relative to the executive branch) – the opportunity it gives to express different sentiments, opinions, and values. It is a disorderly operation and disappointing to those who want firm direction and quick action. But this free play of ideas, as well as the freedom not to move until the time is right, is essential to democratic government. What is needed from Congress is the daily grind of overseeing administration policies, passing judgment on them, and behaving with confidence as a coequal branch. This takes courage and an understanding of constitutional responsibilities.

[…]

Congress must be willing to participate actively in questions of national policy, challenging the President and contesting his actions. It cannot be viewed as quarrelsome behavior for Congress to assess presidential action independently. Issues need the thorough explorations and ventilation that only Congress can provide.

[…]

Robert H. Jackson, whose entire career with the federal government lay outside the legislative branch, serving first as Attorney General and later as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, urged us to hold fast to essentials:With all its defects, delays and inconveniences, men have discovered no technique for long preserving free government except that the Executive be under the law, and that the law be made by parliamentary deliberations.”

Isn’t it high time for the American people to hear from any Democratic “democrats” in Congress there may still be, speaking on principle side-by-side with the Republican “democrats” in Congress who’ve been making their voices heard?

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