Bob Schwartz

Tag: Senate

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.

Who Killed the Assault Weapons Ban?

Hoover Tactical Firearms
A ban on assault weapons is dead, at least for this session of Congress. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that the Democratic gun bill moving forward will not include it.

The political math is that 60 votes are needed to pass a bill in this new and not improved super-majority Senate voting, and there weren’t enough Democrats, let alone Republicans, to make passage possible. The political reality is fear. There are Democratic Senators who believe that a vote for anything that looks like a gun ban, however reasonable and popular, would cause them grief or worse back home and in the voting booth.

We had a ban on assault weapons for ten years, signed by Bill Clinton, allowed to expire under George W. Bush in 2004, and never revived. It was far from perfect or comprehensive, but at least it represented recognition that as a modern civilization, there are things we try not to do or allow to be done. This isn’t heaven, but we can make it a little less hell.

An earlier post mentioned that we have not seen, and as a matter of decency (we are civilized people, aren’t we?) will not see, the photos of the dead children at Sandy Hook School in Newtown. Since then, though, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing at which a vivid word image was painted by a first responder. Maybe not a thousand words, but we got the picture.

Harry Reid could tell us, name by name, which Democratic Senators did not want to have a vote on this so they wouldn’t have to be accountable. They wanted to avoid the double-edged sword, cut once politically by supporters and voters who believe that any banned weapon is one too many, then cut again by those who can’t understand why military weapons are needed by the hunter or the psychopath next door. By Adam Lanza’s mother and, in the end, by Adam Lanza.

Maybe we are asking the wrong questions of our politicians. Maybe we shouldn’t be asking whether they believe in a ban on assault weapons, or in the possibility that such a ban might reduce the number of gun deaths by even a little, and might reduce the brutality of an already brutal world.

Maybe we should be asking our politicians whether they believe in ghosts. The kind of ghosts who visit all of us, in the moments before sleep, in sleep itself. Ghosts of things done or not done. For Senators, ghosts of bills passed, unpassed, and too many times, never voted on at all. Ghosts that aren’t abstract, but that take stark, all too real form. Ghosts that look like mangled, barely recognizable angels, just wanting somebody to speak—and vote—for them.

In Praise of Congressional Mediocrity

Roman Hruska
Roman Hruska was United States Senator from Nebraska from 1954 to 1976. He was a leading conservative, and was anything but a mediocre legislator. But when Richard Nixon appointed G. Harold Carswell to the Supreme Court in 1970, Hruska had this to say about claims that Carswell was less than qualified:

“Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.”

Carswell was not confirmed. And despite Hruska’s accomplishments, he is best known today for his defense of public mediocrity.

As we watch many in Congress talk and talk and talk about why they are not doing anything—except talking—we might remember what Lincoln said: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” Or we might go back to Hruska.

Both the Senate and the House have had their share of greatness. The Senate has been a particularly notable body, even if we can’t have all Henry Clays, Daniel Websters and Robert Tafts. The House is a more mixed bag and, as “the people’s house,” maybe it should be.

But at the heart of Hruska’s statement is the question that faces us every day when we look at our national legislators. Do we want to be represented by people at least as good and capable as us—as honest, as hard-working, as smart, as trustworthy, as caring as us? Do we lower that down to a standard of people merely capable of getting elected? Or do we, contra Hruska, raise our standard and look for people better than we are in all the ways that matter? Even if we can’t have all the best, should we ever settle for mediocre?