The United States Senate has a reputation as the home of the “adults” in legislative circles. Readers who share an unhealthy obsession with American politics and watch far more CSPAN than is good for them are already familiar with the process. Combatants from the opposing parties will show up on Sunday morning talk shows, in town hall meetings, or at tea parties and hurl thinly veiled barbs at one another.
But when you move these same officials to the floor of the upper chamber a nearly miraculous transformation takes place.They refer to each other in glowing terms such as “distinguished senator” and “esteemed colleague.” The real currency in the Senate is time, and the members frequently struggle to outdo each other with their generosity, surrendering the “remainder of their time” to the next honored speaker, even if it’s the same person they were sniping at on Meet the Press the previous weekend.
But last week the wheels briefly flew off of the collegiality cart when newly minted Senator Al Franken temporarily took the gavel to preside over the health care debate. Joe Lieberman — frequently a recent target of progressive ire — was concluding his remarks when he was abruptly informed that his allotted ten minutes had expired. Using a procedure common to all members, Senator Lieberman requested unanimous consent for “a moment” to wrap up his statement. Franken, in his capacity as the “senator from Minnesota,” took this opportunity to grab a few headlines with two simple words: “I object.”
The resulting media circus would lead one to believe that the former Saturday Night Live star had thrown a custard pie from the bench. And it was a rather startling breach of normal protocol, but hardly the first time that decorum has taken a backseat on that floor.
Back in 1954, the Senate was witness to a series of shouting matches between Senator William Knowland (R-Calif) and Senator Wayne Morse (I-Oregon) during the debate over President Eisenhower’s so-called “Atom Bill.” The argument dragged on for thirteen days, burning up more than 160 hours of what the Rome News-Tribune charitably called “acrimonious debate.” This too concerned a major transformation in American policy which generated heated debate across the nation, moving nuclear power into the hands of the private energy industry.
(For the fiscal hawks and historians in the audience, the linked page from that early fifties newspaper includes another story about the federal deficit. President Eisenhower is quoted as being sadly resigned to the fact that “an increase in the 275-billion dollar national debt ceiling” was “inescapable.” Talk about your blasts from the past. We don’t call them the “happy days” for nothing.)
Coming back to the present day, while Al Franken’s two-word outburst may seem rather milquetoast in comparison to battles of the past, it still demonstrated what can best be described as a rookie mistake. On his television show the next morning, Joe Scarborough had a warning for Senator Franken. He described the Senate floor as a “pretty small boat” that you have to paddle around in, and predicted that Franken’s own treatment there in the future may wind up being handled with something less gentle than kid gloves.
To be fair, Harry Reid provided some cover for Al’s outburst, saying that he demanded strict adherence to the imposed time limits, but a few of his colleagues were quick to decry the ill-considered moment of contrarian snubbing. Unfortunately, one of them was John McCain, who declared that he had “never seen anything like it.” The criticism certainly seems easy to justify, but McCain apparently forgot that he had employed the same two-word smackdown on Senator Mark Dayton (also, coincidentally enough, from Minnesota) back in 2002 during the Iraq war debate.
The Senate was always intended to be the more deliberative of the two chambers, where heated rhetoric could be cooled and populist rushing to folly might be tempered. New members typically keep their heads down and take some time to learn the ropes. One good example of this was Hillary Clinton, who packed her bags for the show in 2000 and was rarely heard from again until she launched her failed presidential bid. While some might argue that she had little interest in the job to begin with, she at least merits some restrained praise for not overly roiling the waters.
Few serious analysts envision Franken running for the presidency, so his first and only government job may well turn out to be the pinnacle of his political career. Assuming he plans on sticking around for more than one term, Al will need plenty of friends on both sides of the aisle if he hopes to get anything done. (That scoffing sound you hear in the background comes from people who fail to realize that if the good people of Minnesota choose to replace Franken it will likely be with either Jon Gosselin or that woman who crashed the White House dinner party.)
Still, I fear that we have yet to see the end of this trend. Comity is replaced by comedy in those hallowed halls, and sonorous debate may yet give way to hurled epithets and folding chairs. Sentimental observers may long for good old days which never really existed, but one thing is for sure. CSPAN’s ratings should be trending upward as the entertainment quotient rises, and they could certainly use the viewers.