December 29, 2005
Decline of Congress
WASHINGTON -- On the evening of Dec. 22, Sen. John Warner, the
Senate's Acting President Pro Tempore, declared: "In my capacity
as the senior senator from Virginia, I ask unanimous consent that
the chair now lay before the Senate the House message to accompany
S.2167." The Virginia senator and the chair happened to be
the same person, John Warner. All his colleagues had left to celebrate
Christmas. Warner granted his own request, and the Senate adjourned
after two minutes.
a dignified 78, looked like a young boy playing imaginary football
by throwing passes to himself. In 49 years of watching the Senate,
I never before observed legislation passed with one senator present.
S.2167 was nothing routine but would renew the Patriot Act to
combat terrorism. The House had kicked the bill back to the Senate,
take it or leave it, after senators thought they had finished
the year's business.
Senate session reflects a general decline on Capitol Hill. If
there ever was a golden age of Congress, it preceded my time in
Washington. More likely, Bismarck's admonition that "laws
are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made"
always applied to Congress. Nevertheless, with bipartisan responsibility,
Congress functions more poorly today and looks worse doing it.
of what ails Congress was consideration of the Patriot Act last
week as Congress finished for the year. A strong consensus wanted
to extend the act that broadened anti-terrorist police powers.
An outsider watching the Dec. 21 debate on the Senate-House conference
would have heard mostly sloganeering without exposition of the
issues, a congressional failing that is worse than ever.
were joined by four conservative Republican senators to reject
ending debate on the conference report, Senate Majority Leader
Bill Frist immediately suggested the absence of a quorum -- a
device increasingly used to avoid debate. Nothing happened on
the Senate floor during a quorum call lasting nearly seven hours.
Typically, the real debate took place outside of public view as
senators agreed on a six-month extension of the act pending final
extension required acquiescence by the House, which had shut down
for the year except for pro forma sessions to conduct routine
business. Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner was
incensed. He flew back to Washington from Wisconsin determined
to block the six-month extension.
night," a bristling Sensenbrenner told the House, "the
other body [the Senate] ignored the will of the House" as
well as a majority of senators. He pushed through a mere five-week
extension to pressure the Senate into finally accepting the conference
report next year. Sensenbrenner privately had the full support
of House Republican leaders, who were furious with Frist's performance
in the Senate. Sensenbrenner and the House members then left town
for good, and Warner had to conduct his one-man Senate session
to keep the act from expiring Dec. 31.
a conference report on the budget bill came over to the Senate
from the House and provided another illustration of congressional
decline. As has become their tendency, House Republicans excluded
Democrats from final consideration of the measure and passed the
bill at dawn on a party-line vote.
Conrad, the Democratic budget specialist, pounced on the conference
report with three technical points of order, which alleged violation
of the Senate's arcane rules in the budget bill. Conrad congratulated
himself on his forbearance: "I could be raising 12 or 15
points of order and ask for a vote on every single one of them.
. . . Yes, some of these matters are technical, but they are because
we have rules." Conrad actually was against trimming $50
billion in projected increases from a $2.5 trillion budget, but
he stopped the budget on technicalities when Republicans could
not muster the two-thirds majority to suspend the rules.
Warner playing passer and receiver on the Senate floor, Congress
adjourned until Jan. 31 without taking final action on the budget
and tax bills and the Patriot Act. With Social Security and tax
reforms going nowhere, it is hard to justify congratulating a
Congress that looks bad while it is doing little.
2005 Creators Syndicate