The Lack of Comity and The Abundance of Tragedy
The two faces of a dysfunctional and hopelessly polarized political system and the attendant effects upon governmental institutions are best reflected in a lack of comity and the resulting tragedy which is a byproduct of that loss. It has steadily exhibited itself through inaction and outright rancor over the past several decades as the country has dangerously split itself into two opposing ideological and political camps.
No clearer indication of our dysfunctional government was on vivid display yesterday as the U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chairman, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) decided to arbitrarily and capriciously suspend Senate rules on what constitutes a quorum, thereby greasing the skids for the unanimous endorsement of two Cabinet picks. The two individuals, Steven Mnuchin and Tom Price have been the subject of numerous allegations of ethical lapses that Democrats were not given the opportunity to pursue under the strict control of the Republican majority.
What is most discouraging about this turn of events is the swift and inexorable disintegration of Senatorial courtesy and basic respect that had been the hallmark of the upper legislative body.
What is most discouraging about this turn of events is the swift and inexorable disintegration of Senatorial courtesy and basic respect that had been the hallmark of the upper legislative body. I first went to work in the U.S. Senate as an intern in 1978 and returned to serve as a senior economic counsel and legislative director from 1981-1987. My education on the ways of the Senate was punctuated by the deference and respect adversaries exhibited towards one another, both in committee and on the Senate floor. While to the uninitiated it gives the appearance of exaggerated politeness dripping with masked sarcasm, the practical result was an ability to eventually compromise and reach resolve on the most difficult of issues, both substantive and political.
As my education broadened I was enamored by the degree to which civility and comity ruled the processes and procedures that led to the adoption of legislation. It was truly an abject lesson in restraint, excruciating at times, but effective in ensuring that the nation’s work would be done. I also learned quickly about the cultural differences between the Upper Body (Senate) and the Lower Body (House of Representatives), the classical bifurcation that separated the ruling class from the unruly People’s House.
But in those days it worked. Today the system is hopelessly fractured. Watching Orrin Hatch puncture procedural precedent and ram through two questionable nominations yesterday was a sad reminder of the destructive element that blind polarization and dogmatic politicization render. It also reminded me of an event that happened almost 20 years ago which seems all but impossible in the contemporary political environment. In 1998 I was serving in the Clinton Administration under Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and had occasion to visit with Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy one day on Capitol Hill. The occasion was to be a discussion with the Senator on some policy achievements we had advanced in the preceding years with respect to protection of commercial fishermen and fisheries off the coast of New England. I walked with Senator Ted into the anteroom of the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which he was the ranking member and Orrin Hatch was Chairman.
I had always observed Senator Hatch to be a rather stodgy Mormon from Utah, very conservative in his political views, deceptively soft-spoken, but I was aware that he also had a rather creative, musical side to his constitution. Despite the fact that he was actually from Pittsburgh he just seemed to have blended into the woodwork of Utah politics. As we were entering the cloakroom of the Judiciary Committee hearing room Senator Ted spotted the Chairman walking in and in his robust fashion greeting him as “my favorite Chairman,” they both stopped, smiled and exchanged pleasantries, yukking it up and patting each other on the back as they went their separate ways.
Curious, I asked Kennedy as we departed to walk back to his office in the Russell Building (Rm. 109 for those who find it interesting given his brother Jack’s World War II exploits on PT-109) if he really did have an affection for the Senator from Utah. His smile turned into a serious expression and he explained to me that yes he had great respect for him, thought he was fair and judicious in the way he handled his Senate duties as Committee Chair, and he genuinely liked him.
I shall never forget my astonishment at this, but given all that I had learned in my years on Capitol Hill it was comforting that two people with obviously diametrically opposite views on most issues could learn to respect each other’s views and work together to make effective and worthwhile change. This was the Senate I remember as a younger staffer and that Senate no longer exists.
Thus, as I watched Chairman Hatch yesterday it was with a certain degree of sadness for a time and an art lost. I can only imagine that if Senator Kennedy was with us today he might have some degree of influence over his “good friend” and esteemed colleague from Utah. But alas both Ted and those days seem to be gone.
To the extent that the loss of public confidence in our leaders and institutions is either a result of such prevalent rancor or is responsible for it is a debate for the historians. But to the extent that it is currently an undeniable reality it is problematic and dangerous. For when the loss of comity and civility result in a corrupted process, everyone loses. Yesterday was a loss for us all and there is no sign that anything is bound to change for the better under the leadership of Donald Trump. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.