House, Senate Should Schedule Prime-Time Monthly Debates

Posted March 18, 2003 at 2:38pm

As I have traveled around the country and spoken to various groups in Washington, the subject on peoples’ minds, naturally, has been the impending war with Iraq. So it is not surprising — given the public preoccupation and the transcendent importance of the nearing conflict, given the divisions in the United States and internationally, given the importance of the war on reshaping the future international world order — that Congress in the past weeks has been gripped with debate over Miguel Estrada, abortion techniques and their relationship to gynecological procedures, bankruptcy, and other issues. [IMGCAP(1)]

I do not want to denigrate the importance of the courts, downplay the significance of the abortion debate or brush off the policy dilemmas on bankruptcy. But the virtual absence of Congress as an institution in the debate raging around the world over our role in the world and the way we are approaching Iraq has not gone unnoticed and is a real-life, wholehearted embarrassment to the institution.

There are, of course, many reasons why Congress hasn’t dropped everything to debate war with Iraq. There are two formal avenues for Congress to play a direct role in this kind of policy: authorizing the use of force, via resolution or declaration of war; and appropriating funds to carry out the policy. We had the debate (such as it was, and it wasn’t much) over the authorization of the use of force last fall, and once the vote was taken, that was that. And there has not been an appropriate place to use the appropriations process as an alternative way to engage the issue.

But debate is not really dependent on a formal vehicle. If Congress wanted to debate this issue — or any issue — it could find the ways and means to do so. There has been little appetite on either side of the aisle to follow through. One reason is that, despite the gravity of any war, this one does not have the crackling tension surrounding it that existed in 1991. Then, we did not know whether war would be a bloody and extended disaster — remember, we had then-Senate Armed Services Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), among others, suggesting that there could be tens of thousands of American casualties. Those predictions (which Nunn didn’t simply make up, but came from top military officials to whom he spoke) proved false. After that war, and after Kosovo, and after Afghanistan, most Americans view our military force as overwhelming and dominant; soldiers will die, but in the tens or hundreds. That is awful, as will be the civilian casualties that are inevitable in war, but not themselves the impetus for a grand debate.

At the same time, Republicans in Congress have been content to let the president and his teammates — Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice — dominate the playing field. Democrats, with some notable exceptions, have been loath to revisit the vote they took last fall, to showcase their party’s deep internal disagreements on Iraq, or to provide any opening for the charge that Democrats are weak on national or homeland security.

Even so, I believe that if Democrats still held the majority in the Senate, we would have seen a different dynamic here — not a second vote, but a real debate on the Senate floor. But with Republicans having no desire or need to stop everything else and debate war, Democrats have been relegated to television talk shows or speeches on C-SPAN or press conferences to get their message across. Much of the message or messages have been carried by putative presidential candidates, most of whom are Members of Congress. There have been exceptions — most notably Sen. Robert Byrd (W.Va.), who has been eloquent in his opposition to the use of force, but largely unnoticed to the broader attentive public.

This is a real shame. The Senate still calls itself the world’s greatest deliberative body, but there is precious little deliberation. Congress should be the nation’s forum for debating real and important issues of national and international importance — not “Crossfire” or “The O’Reilly Factor.”

So it is time to resurrect an idea I raised more than a decade ago — formal, structured, lively, prime-time Oxford-style debates on the House and Senate floors. Here is a realistic proposal: Once a month, the Senate will set aside a two-hour block at 9 p.m. The two leaders, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.), will choose an important issue before the nation and Congress — it might be policy toward North Korea, dealing with the uninsured, tort reform, tax cuts, or any of the dozens of key issues that need resolution or are on peoples’ minds, and that have serious differences in policy approaches on the table. They will frame a formal debate on the issue, with two Senators on either side. Each of the four will have seven and one-half minutes to present a case, followed by five minutes each of rebuttal, with 10 minutes for free-flowing give-and-take. In the second hour, other Senators will take to the floor for a more traditional debate on the subject.

The debates need not always break down on partisan lines — there are lots of issues where the differences are more ideological or philosophical, or simply tactical. The debaters need not be the chairmen and ranking members of the relevant committees or subcommittees; they should be the best debaters on the subjects. The number should be limited to four. When the House some years ago did a trial run at Oxford-style debates, five or six players on a side were used to make sure that no major figure was offended; the result was fragmented, confusing and disjointed. And it should go without saying that the House should follow suit, with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) scheduling their own debates and choosing their own debaters.

I harbor no illusions that the networks would pre-empt “Fear Factor” or “Survivor” for these debates; nor would the cable news networks bump their own talk shows (although MSNBC might be tempted, given its current ratings). But C-SPAN would cover them, they would develop a core following, and television news shows, op-ed pages and news reporters would use them as fodder for their own analyses and to punctuate their own coverage. If they worked, the debates would serve as jumping-off points for discussions the next day on “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” and “Nightline.”

Just as important, these debates would give lawmakers a taste for what it means to be a deliberative body. Maybe they would encourage real debate in the day-to-day legislative process, something that has been virtually absent for years.