Editorial July 19, 2013

 TheWeekinCongress.com

Editorial

The rules of procedure in the Senate are designed to temper what can easily become a heated and partisan discussion or debate. For example, Members, when making comments about an opponent’s bill, directs those comments through the Chair; “Mr. President, while I respect the Senator’s right to bring this bill to the floor, it is nothing but political nonsense and a complete waste of time when much more important matters need attention.” The speaker, then, just told his opponent that his bill is political nonsense, a waste of time and is likely an abuse of his right to introduce legislation. Those may be fighting words to the opponent but the speaker’s comments and the opponent’s response are tempered by exchanging them through the third party who, by the way, has some authority regarding the nature of the comments based on Senate rules. So the rules are designed to sustain a robust debate despite comments made that might degenerate the debate to name-calling and other unproductive comments.

The Senate also has extensive rules about how to move legislation. The filibuster is one of those coveted rules that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) recently considered neutralizing. Gone are the days when a Senator would come to the floor and speak for hours on end to delay further debate on a bill. Now, the filibuster process is announced and goes directly to filing for cloture and then a vote on cloture, a vote requiring 60 Senators to agree to limit further debate time and then hold a vote on passage. As long as those 60 votes don’t show up, the bill is stalled.

Clearly, the majority would not want to end filibusters because the day will come when they are in the minority and the filibuster is the strongest tool to resist a majority riding roughshod. In other words, if you ask if the filibuster is a good idea the minority will answer yes but so will the majority knowing it will be the minority again.

But is filibuster a good idea? Does it support a robust debate? Does it get anything done or is it used simply to make sure something doesn’t get done? That’s what we have seen recently in the filibuster of Presidential nominees and it was, most certainly, a waste of time. If nominee Rob Cordray, nominated to run the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, was so unacceptable why, under threat of losing the filibuster, did so many Republicans once determined to keep him out vote to appoint him?  There is reason to believe that it wasn’t Cordray the Republicans objected to but the Bureau he would run they didn’t want. They lost that battle when Dodd-Frank passed including the creation of that Bureau. To continue to oppose the Bureau by refusing to nominate its head is blind stubbornness. Stubborn for obvious reasons, blind because they ignore that as the minority you don’t get to win them all and two years between elections is far too long to muck up the works while waiting to maybe gain the majority again.

It is time for the Senate to look at the filibuster for what it is, look at what it has become, and then change it. Filibusters have legitimate uses but they should not go on forever. The Senate should limit the time a filibuster can take to long enough for the minority Senator to make the point. From there the matter should be given an up or down vote.

To do that the minority has to face that it is, in fact, a minority; that the majority holds the power because the voters gave that to them. To have a procedure that directly ignores the majority of voters’ intentions to elect a majority they believe will carry out their wishes; and to find that the minority of voters prevail anyway is a contradiction to what gets people out to vote in the first place; the assumption of majority rule. ##

Why Trust Is The Coin Of The Realm

By Lee H. Hamilton

“Americans’ lack of confidence in their governing institutions makes correcting most any political or policy problem more difficult.”

Hamilton

Hamilton

Back in June, Gallup released a survey that got a fair bit of attention for its headline finding: only 10 percent of Americans trust Congress as an institution. Think about it. If you walk into a cafe this morning and there are nine other people in there reading the paper or staring into their laptops, only one of you in the room has faith that the body charged with making our nation’s laws can do its job right.

What didn’t get quite as much coverage was the fact that Congress was just one of 16 institutions whose public standing Gallup measured. Atop the list in Americans’ confidence was the military, followed by small business and the police. Then came organized religion, which about half of Americans trust.

The bad news in the poll arrived after that. The fifth most-trusted institution is the presidency – but it enjoyed the confidence of only 36 percent of poll respondents. The Supreme Court stood at 34 percent, down three points from last year. Add Congress into the mix, and these are deeply unsettling numbers.

What lies behind Americans’ doubts and cynicism about the three major branches of the federal government – with the exception of the military – is undoubtedly a mix of factors. But I suspect it rests most heavily on a broad perception of dysfunction and a deep distaste for the extreme polarization and politicization these institutions have displayed.

We’ve always looked on the Supreme Court as standing above politics, for instance. Most noticeably starting with its Bush v. Gore decision in the wake of the 2000 elections, however, the Court has come to be seen as divided into political factions, with each trying to advance its own agenda. It is now perceived less as an institution of law and more as a political institution.

Congress and the presidency, of course, are political institutions. But the current tenor of American politics works against them. Campaigns are as much or more about attacking the other candidate as they are about debating substantive issues. Every move that members of Congress make – and that many Republicans believe the President makes – appears to be about “playing to the base” or putting the other side in an uncomfortable spot. Resolving problems because they need to be resolved – especially the ones that Americans consider most important, like jobs and the economy – doesn’t seem to be on the agenda.

Americans’ lack of confidence in their governing institutions makes correcting most any political or policy problem more difficult. The voters are less open to policy-making or reform, since they don’t trust that government can actually solve the issue in front of it. Politicians tend to back away from bold initiatives and become less willing to speak out or to act, because they anticipate the dubious stance with which their proposals will be received.

Much-needed reforms – to repair the tax system, for instance, or to reshape government institutions – will be met with skepticism if not indifference. The result is that only very modest efforts can be expected, reaffirming voters’ belief that government can’t be trusted to work, and fueling political tensions that rise when problems remain unresolved.

Government relies on policy direction and resources allotted by policy makers to do its job. But it relies equally strongly on trust. It may be trite to say that “trust is the coin of the realm,” but it’s no less true for that. Without it, our institutions simply cannot be effective.

I don’t expect this recent poll to be seen as a wake-up call in Washington. The city seems too embroiled in its own machinations to be worried about such matters as “trust.” Yet it is also true that if members of Congress, the White House, and even Supreme Court justices want Americans to treat them seriously – to listen to them, believe them, and above all believe in the institutions they serve – then they won’t treat our declining confidence in them lightly. They have to invigorate their efforts to renew Americans’ trust. Because unless they can do that, it will get harder and harder for them to do their jobs.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.