The spectacle of a strong-armed politician wresting control of the processes of government by denying his adversaries any rights whatsoever, including the right to free speech, self-determination, or participation in the process is a sorry one indeed. Today we are bearing witness to a return to the form of might makes right gunboat diplomacy that is a throwback to a much more dangerous and perilous time. But it is not in Crimea, it is in the U.S. Congress.
What makes the schoolyard tactics employed by Chairman Darrell Issa at this week's hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, such a deliciously misappropriated title, even more spectacularly reprehensible is the fact that they represent the most serious breach of comity, civility and courtesy that many who have spent decades either participating in or observing the legislative process have ever seen.
I went to work on Capitol Hill in 1978 at the young age of 25 and proceeded to spend the next 22 years either working in or with Congress. Although I spent six years on the Senate Budget Committee, I participated in numerous conference committees involving both House and Senate conferees. I spent 10 years working in two Clinton Administrations and half the Carter Administration in positions that required close coordination with Capitol Hill. I participated and observed a system that was fastidious in its observance of protocol, sometimes nauseatingly respectful of the minority's right to speak through opening statements, questioning witnesses' testimony, participating in preparation of witness lists, offering motions and amendments, and filing dissenting reports on passage of resolutions.
At each step in the legislative process courtesy, civility and comity, even during the most contentious debates, allowed for full discussion of the issues. I remember on one occasion when my boss, Democratic Senator Sasser from Tennessee, was held up in Banking Committee and an important vote was pending before the Budget Committee. Chairman Pete Domenici, Republican from New Mexico, was getting impatient as I explained to him and his staff that the Senator was in transit from one end of hall to the other. The Chairman held the vote for a full ten minutes, growing more exasperated with each passing second. But he held the vote open until Senator Sasser arrived and cast his vote. It did not affect the outcome and the Chairman could have very easily just closed the vote and explained it would have no bearing on the outcome, but he granted us the opportunity to go on record on that particular issue.
That is the way the system is designed to work. Slow, methodical, painstakingly courteous to the point where each member refers to the other as my friend, regardless of the lack of affection one may hold for the other, and proceedings ever under the watchful eye of former Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the keeper of institutional decorum and history, who would just as easily scold one of his own members for violating the honor of the Chamber as he would a member of the other party.
Civility is the hallmark of our governmental processes. It is what distinguishes us from other systems that purport democratic ideals, it allows for a peaceful transition to accompany the most vicious of campaigns. One only needs to look at the way in which the contentious election of 2000 unfolded to validate this point. But civility and comity and courtesy are wilting under the strains of a system that finds neoconservative and Tea Party acolytes who are dangerously touting the benefits of a dictatorial tyrant like Vladimir Putin as preferable to the President of the United States. The opposition to President Obama has engendered so much disdain and hatred that one has to question whether or not our dysfunctional system is close to breaking down altogether. Patriotism is emboldened when dissent, criticism, and disagreement over policies is practiced, but advocating a system that is diametrically opposite of everything the country and the constitution stands for begs whether disdain and hatred have not clouded the rational thinking processes of self-described patriots.
It is perfectly acceptable to disagree with the President, I find myself more and more often in that camp, but what is unacceptable is to intimate that the actions of a dictator are preferable to that of a democratically elected (twice) leader. And in a very real sense the actions of Mr. Issa this week bring into question the norms of a representative democracy. If a Chairman can summarily shut down debate or even speech per se, not only the spirit of democracy but the rules and ethics of the institution itself are under challenge.
The Ranking Member of a Congressional committee is by the very nature of his or her position entitled to special privilege in our constitutional form of government. Ironically the privileges afforded minority representation against the tyranny of the majority were delineated clearly in the Federalist papers, the bedrock of our constitutional construction, and have been fully utilized by the Republican opposition in the United States Senate, just look at the historical use of the filibuster in recent years compared to the historical average.
No, our system is not perfect, far from it, but it was carefully constructed to protect against the very abuses upon display yesterday. Chairman Issa may not have technically broken any law, but he has violated a core principle that has traditionally allowed our system to function and protect against wild impetuous swings that can result in times of irrational angst and thoughtlessness. If anything our system of governance is a thoughtful one, prone to seemingly endless debate towards compromise, a process of legislating akin to sausage-making, and changes that happen in an incremental manner.
It is absurdly ironic that Mr. Issa's committee is technically identified as one devoted to government reform yet he is a standard bearer for a party that yearns for Soviet-style dictates from a former KGB operative. That is not the kind of reform that was intended, I have no doubt, when the committee was formed. Persistent flaunting of the spirit of a representative democratic system of government will further fuel the notion rampant among the electorate that our governmental institutions and leaders are part of Dysfunction, Inc., the bureaucratic equivalent of a bankrupt public service corporation that will only strengthen growing suspicions and questioning of the construct laid out by our Founding Fathers and the beloved constitution that so many embrace as the foundation of freedom.
Shame on you Mr. Issa, shame on you!
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