In his Sept. 10 address to the nation, President Barack Obama asserted he already had authority to go after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant but would welcome congressional action to underscore the U.S. commitment. Leaders of both parties in Congress, while supportive of the president’s aims, visibly balked at holding a direct vote to authorize military action, at least before the midterm elections. It was a rare profile in bipartisanship if not courage.
To put a gentler twist on Shakespeare’s more drastic remedy: The first thing we do, let’s chill all the lawyers in Congress. That way they may become cool and practical legislators.
In our democratic policy process, there is an obvious link between popular sentiment and our elected leaders. However, matters can be somewhat murky when it comes to foreign policy. That’s due in part to the deference paid by the people and Congress to the president’s role in acting and speaking for the nation, at least at the outset of international incidents. It is also due in part to the public’s low level of knowledge and interest in foreign affairs.
Do members of Congress care what the people think of them? With Congress’ job approval running at historic lows, you might conclude they don’t care because they don’t seem to be doing anything about it.
Perhaps only Congress can invent a tool that it fully expects will rarely perform its intended function. It’s called the discharge petition, a device designed to dislodge bills stuck in committee. This year, House Democrats have filed three such petitions on issues they hope will propel them back to majority status in the midterm elections — a minimum wage increase, an immigration overhaul and unemployment compensation.
If a martian landed here today with the mission to bring back information on how Congress makes budgets, he might report back there is no sign of intelligent life in Washington — at least when it comes to budgeting. On the other hand, he might conclude the opposite: The budget process is so convoluted and complex that officials have obviously encrypted the whole thing so no other country or planet can crack the code as to how U.S. budgets are really made.
In my Dec. 18 column, “Senate Leader Reid’s Rule Recalls House Czars”, I recounted how a group of progressive Republicans and Democrats removed Speaker Joe Cannon, R-Ill., as chairman and a member of the Rules Committee in 1910 by claiming a constitutional privilege to change House rules from the floor. When Cannon ruled the motion was not privileged under the Constitution, his decision was appealed and overturned.
Why do political parties in Congress sometimes fight, even when they agree? Is it like siblings who seem to quarrel over nothing — just the nature of the beast?
When asked if I intended to write a column on all the procedural moves and counter-moves during the twin crises of the shutdown and near debt default, I said “no.” I didn’t want to dignify or seem to make sense of such senseless forays into futility.
House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, surprised even his own party caucus colleagues Tuesday by introducing a bill to create a Bicameral Working Group on Deficit Reduction and Economic Growth, then calling it up in his committee an hour later.
During the 1977 House debate to establish a Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, two lawmakers expressed concerns that the new panel could become a third chamber of Congress that would constrain other members’ abilities to make informed decisions on intelligence matters.
From his perch at the Congressional Research Service, Walter J. Oleszek has helped train hundreds, if not thousands, of members and staff over the past 45 years. It’s not surprising that he’s widely recognized, both on and off the Hill, as the pre-eminent expert on Congress — its rules and procedures, and how they have evolved over the past two and a quarter centuries.
When I was 4 years old, two kids ages 10 and 12 invited me to play castle. They instructed me to stand still in the middle of the living room, arms at my sides, while they erected four walls using large, cardboard building blocks. When the walls were well over my head, they asked whether I could get out. I lifted my arms straight out from my sides and began pivoting back and forth, bringing the walls tumbling down to my squeals of delight.
It is ironic that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., two days after he brokered the compromise on filibusters of executive nominations to avert the “nuclear option,” threatened to hold up the nomination of Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey for a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. McCain was angered that Dempsey, during his public confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, refused to offer his personal opinion on what to do about Syria.
Back in the late 1940s and ’50s, as scores of witnesses were “taking the Fifth” in public hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Speaker Sam Rayburn and friends were privately “striking a blow for liberty” by taking their fifth (bourbon and branch) in the speaker’s Capitol hideaway — the infamous “Board of Education” room.
In this age of the Internet and high-tech surveillance, is individual liberty irrelevant, obsolete or just undervalued? The answer could well be all of the above, judging from tepid public and congressional reactions to recent government intrusions into individual privacy, speech, press and association rights.
On June 7, Rep. John D. Dingell became the longest-serving member in the history of Congress. The Michigan Democrat evolved into a master of congressional procedures and traditions over his nearly six decades of service. As a devout institutionalist, Dingell ranks alongside the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, whose longevity in office he just surpassed.
Bashing Congress has been a popular sport since the beginning of the republic. Ohio Republican Rep. Nicholas Longworth described this national pastime in his acceptance speech as speaker in 1925: “I have been a member of the House of Representatives ... 20 years. During the whole of that time we have been attacked, denounced, despised, hunted, harried, blamed, looked down upon, excoriated, and flayed. I refuse to take it personally.”
When you hear cries for a “return to the regular order” from both parties in both chambers, you know there is either a bipartisan consensus about the causes of disorder and its cure or a selective invocation of the term by different folks with differing agendas. Alas, it is the latter — a political Rorschach test in which each group perceives the ink blot according to its peculiar “ink-linations.”
GOP Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois was asked by a reporter in 1964, when he was minority leader, what he thought of a proposed change in filibuster rules. “Well,” he replied in his distinctive basso profundo, “Ha, ha, ha; and, I might add, ho, ho, ho.”