Lately, Congress Has Missed Moynihan’s ‘Special Voice’

Posted March 25, 2003 at 1:43pm

Former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is at the Washington Hospital Center, recovering from an infection that set in after an emergency appendectomy. The infection left him, for a time, in critical condition as he approached his 76th birthday two Sundays ago. The first news reports, dire in tone, jolted me and other Moynihan fans. [IMGCAP(1)]

Coincidentally last week, while reshelving some books in my office, I came across a letter I had received from the New York Democrat in November 1990. Inside a book he had sent me was the two-page letter, single-spaced and typed on the typewriter — not word processor, typewriter — he kept at his converted schoolhouse in upstate New York, the place he repaired to read, reflect and write erudite letters.

This one began by marveling at the grist I and my fellow psephologists (election-watchers, that is; I’m trying to be as erudite as Moynihan) had to glean from the election results. He then went on to talk about his plans for writing a concluding chapter for a new edition of his book “Coping: On the Practice of Government,” asking for suggestions and ideas. Along the way, he offered a cornucopia of witty and insightful asides about governance and human nature.

I didn’t just start thinking about Moynihan when I read about his medical emergency, or when I came across the letter. I have actually been thinking about him a lot in recent weeks, as Washington has grappled simultaneously with the U.N. Security Council and the lead-up to war. Then there’s the war itself and its aftermath, including the rearrangement of the world political order; the looming confrontation with North Korea; the new package(s) of massive tax cuts; the projections of massive deficits in the decade ahead; the discussion of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security in that context.

Congress on many of these issues has been AWOL, or reduced to sound bites, or forced into unnatural and strained debate out of the appropriate context (i.e., on setting a budget with a large-scale war looming). This is an extraordinary moment in American history; we are on the cusp of fundamental decisions affecting fundamental change in the role of the United States in the world and the role of government in the United States. But our discourse on these huge subjects has been, at best, disappointing.

Republican leaders in Congress have had no desire to engage in a real, deep and spirited debate over the tax cuts, the cost of the war and its aftermath, the explosive growth of entitlements and the slim likelihood of doing anything now to contain them, and the structural deficits we are all but certain to build into the budget. Their mantra has been to support the president at a time of war — just vote, don’t ask. The Main Street Coalition of so-called moderate Republicans in the House — they should probably change their official moniker to “Hanz and Franz’s Girly Men” — have simply capitulated without a murmur. The Democrats want to take on the tax cuts, but have zero answers to the entitlement fix, other than to propose ever more expensive add-ons. [IMGCAP(2)]

On the world front, once the war in Iraq is over and regime change is complete, we will have to make huge and critical decisions about our future relationships with the United Nations and the Security Council, France and Germany, Russian and China, both Koreas, and so on. Will we be vindictive with France, Germany and Russia after the war, denying them any role in oil or commerce in post-war Iraq? Will NATO survive, or be transformed with a more vibrant role for the emerging democracies of Eastern and Central Europe and a trivialized role for France and Germany? Will the United Nations be able to erase its embarrassing role in the leadup to the war and assume a serious role as peacekeeper and nationbuilder in Iraq? Will we demand serious reform of the Security Council and the governing structure of the United Nations? To what effect?

Naturally, in the middle of fighting, our attention is focused on the war itself and on our troops. But we cannot just leave these overarching issues to be resolved in an ad hoc way once the fighting ebbs. We need somebody cutting to the core, forcing us to confront things that are necessary to confront. That is what Moynihan could do so well when he was in office, through wise counsel, historic perspective, knowledge of international law and international organizations, understanding of taxes, budgets and entitlements, and willingness to call them all as he sees them.

To be sure, we have many admirable Senators still in office who are smart, witty, articulate, wide-ranging and insightful. One of them is Moynihan’s successor, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D), who continues New York’s tradition of electing a Senator who gets extra attention and credence because of the sheer force of his or her intellect and personality. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) are relentless in their willingness to say what others won’t dare utter, or raise uncomfortable questions. But even in a body filled with bright people, Moynihan’s voice was special — and needed in special times like these.

Let me add here that Moynihan’s is not the only voice I miss. I also miss other Congressional heroes of mine who have retired and no longer participate as actively in the major debates we have or should have on critical issues: Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), Rep. Barber Conable (R-N.Y.), Rep. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.), Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), among others. They are alive and well, and contributing mightily to public service. I thank God every day for the work Simpson and Martin have done on our Continuity of Government Commission.

But they are more on the sidelines than in the frontlines of the major policy debates. Of course, the focus is and should be on the current office holders who are making the policy decisions. But we need to find a better way to tap into the insights and expertise of the best of the former lawmakers. Instead of venerating those who are out of office but have the experience and perspective to enhance our public debate, we give most of the time and attention they should get to cable TV spin doctors, not one of whom is worthy to carry Pat Moynihan’s luggage.