Bob Schwartz

Tag: filibuster

Teach-in and Dope in the Senate

Teach-in
Yesterday some Senators, mostly Democrats, held an all-night “talkathon” on the Senate floor about climate change. It wasn’t any kind of filibuster, because there wasn’t any particular piece of legislation involved.

Back in the 1960s, this might have been called a teach-in, which was just this sort of session during which change-minded people would learn about the radical issues of the day. Except those people were more likely to be professors and students (or “outside agitators”), and it was more likely to take place in a college administration building than the U.S. Senate.

Two occasional hallmarks of extended teach-ins were sex and drugs. We don’t dare speculate whether any U.S. Senators were having sex during this “talkathon,” but we might just wonder if anybody snuck out to the cloakroom for a quick hit.

In the delightful and trenchant Amazon political comedy Alpha House, one of the four Republican U.S. Senators living in the eponymous D.C. house is seen relieving the tension of running for reelection by bonging it in the bathroom. (The much more serious and dangerous Netflix political series House of Cards also shows the ambitious Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, sharing joints with his Lady Macbeth of a wife. Sex of all varieties too.)

Back to the climate change teach-in. Even if no substances were involved in the event, what are the odds that any of those participants occasionally indulge, or that any of the rest of the Senate does? As a variant on the old speaker’s trick of imagining your audience without clothes, maybe it would be easier to watch the U.S. Senate if we as citizens just imagined our favorite or least favorite Senators sitting in those iconic smoke-filled rooms passing the pipe. Dope in the Senate. That would explain so much.

Why Do Some Republicans and Democrats Hate Voting?

Profiles in Courage
With the news that some Republican Senators (including presidential hopefuls like Rand Paul and Marco Rubio)  plan to filibuster new gun control legislation, thus avoiding any votes on the proposed restrictions, it is now clear: Some current Republicans—and some Democrats—hate voting.

The evidence is mounting. During the 2012 elections, there were numerous instances of Republican legislatures and officials adding voter requirements, reducing voting hours, etc., which made it more difficult or frustrating to vote. The intent was to suppress Democratic votes; the evidence of that might be considered circumstantial, except that Republican strategists, arrogantly or stupidly, told us that it was their intention.

As was pointed out during the election, voter suppression has a long and inglorious history in America. Suppression of black voting was an art form in the South, though nominally the party lines were seemingly different. At the depth of Jim Crow, the South was Democratic. (In modern terms, though, these were DINOs—Democrats in Name Only. These Southern Democrats were different, and after living for a while as Dixiecrats, they underwent political reassignment surgery and became Republicans.)

The latest manifestation of this antipathy to voting is in the U.S. Senate, legendary and self-proclaimed “greatest deliberative body in the world.” (Be respectful; stop laughing.) Filibusters are an integral part of the Senate. When a Senator or group of them wanted to prevent a vote, he or they would have to hold the floor, and talk until they dropped or had to use the bathroom, or until the bill’s proponents gave up—as seen in the movies, most famously Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and as seen in the attempts to block civil rights legislation in the 1960s. That all changed with a new Senate rule, promulgated a few years ago by Democratic Senators, allowing Senators to block a vote by simply saying that there would be no vote. There is no vote unless 60 Senators agree. And no Senator—setting aside Rand Paul’s recent talking filibuster stunt—needs to even stand up and talk, or even appear on the floor at all.

To understand why it is so important not to vote, we have the cautionary tale of some high profile Democrats. Congressional votes are not just a problem at the next election; they can come back to haunt you years later. In 1996, many Democrats voted for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and a Democratic President, Bill Clinton, signed it. DOMA came before the Supreme Court this week, which served as an uncomfortable reminder to those Democrats that times—and the party line—have changed. The briefs in the case included a mea culpa from some of those legislators, and just last week, Hillary Clinton released a strangely dark and dour video confessing her evolution on the question of marriage equality (Bill had previously apologized).

Even worse problems dogged Democrats who in 2003 enthusiastically voted for the Iraq War. Besides John Kerry’s “for it before I was against it” election year explanation, the war’s anniversary last week left some of them in a “what was I thinking?” mode.

What they were thinking during the Iraq War vote, and during the DOMA vote, was: I am a person of conscience, but that conscience will do no good if I lose this seat, so I have to ask just how this will play back home. The answer for both DOMA and the Iraq War, under the circumstances of the moment, was: not very favorably.

The lesson for some: Whether it is voting at the polls or voting in the Senate, sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, and sometimes less is more, and sometimes less voting is just better.

In the case of the ballot box, trying to suppress voting is un-American. In the case of standing up and being counted in the Senate, not voting is a dereliction of duty since, as a Senator, that’s your job.

On the other hand, those who fight and run away live to fight another day. That’s how the saying goes. The primary part of that, though, is that you at least fight in the first place. If all you do is run away by, say, not voting, it’s all about survival, and not about conscience and accountability. You may win an election, you may even get to be President. But if you’re thinking about being in the next volume of Profiles in Courage, don’t bother looking for your name.