Friday, February 18, 2011

An Interview with Adlai Stevenson III: Part Five, The Death of Congressional Sanity

In this final section, I'll cover the portion of our talk in which we discussed the differences and distinctions in government between the House and Senate. Stevenson was a first-hand witness to their devolution for eleven years while a member of the Senate. Having won a special election in 1970 to serve out the remainder of a term vacated when a Senator died in office, Stevenson then won a full term in his own right. By its conclusion, burned out and disillusioned, he decided that nearly two full terms was enough for him. He instead returned to his home state of Illinois, preparing to run for Governor. That is quite a story in and of itself, and one I will leave for those who wish to read his new book, again titled simply, The Black Book.

Returning to the present day, the sinister rumblings and threats of a GOP-controlled House of Representatives have been on the mind of many. Whether it be a restriction of abortion rights or a threat to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Stevenson sees such conduct as symptomatic of the overall decay of the People's Body at a whole.

[The House] represents the people most directly and is the first check against excesses in the Executive Branch. I found that the House was capable of approving irresponsible, politically convenient measures because it could count on Senators with their longer terms in office to protect the public interest from its excesses. This is no longer a prudent assumption.

Partisan ideology is Stevenson's fear, in part, but he fears more the influx of capital, and a grand pay-for-play scheme that grows more virulent every passing second. Returning to the state of the Congress, comparisons between the 1994 Republican take-over of Congress and last year's election are inevitable. Measures currently under consideration are identical or at least closely related. In our interview, the Senator noted that "regular order was abandoned altogether by the Republicans [in 1994] after they acquired control."

Roll call votes were held open as long as the leadership required to cajole or bribe Members. Omnibus bills of hundreds of pages were drafted at night by leadership staff and rammed through the House before Members had a chance to study them. They were loaded with hidden earmarks for the faithful, denials thereof for dissidents, and favors for the interests which had invested.

Republican who have long complained about Democrats ramming legislation through Congress might need to take a long look in the mirror. Or, at least they ought to recognize the identical shade of their own kettle to that of the pot they criticize. Politics has grown increasingly petty and vindictive, and though there might have always been a certain amount of partisan name calling, Stevenson believes such conduct has been elevated to a far more ignoble plane.

The subject of pork and earmarks has also become a contentious issue recently. Stevenson states that, in his time on Capitol Hill, they were relative rarities, especially as concerns today. In The Black Book, he describes the way things used to be.

In the old days, a smoke-filled closed conference committee meeting of the Congressional Public Works Committee would have warmed the cackles of Boss Tweed's heart. That's where the pork was divvied up. But we were subject to more restraint and discipline. It never was an ethically pure process, as the Abscam incident implicating a Senator and several House members in an apparent bribery scheme demonstrated. But in the main we revered the Senate and earned the respect of our peers through its service.

...We exercised more restraint when we were less vulnerable. We fought for pork on the merits, justifying it to the Executive agencies and the Congress. We had more security in Party and were less dependent on the expectations of investors in politics, as well as the appetites of the new media. We did not trade votes for earmarks, which were unknown. Affections of patriotism, faith, and support for social values, all taken for granted, were no part of the political culture and process.

In other words, it was nothing like the current day. An during our interview, once again, Senator Stevenson returned to a consistent theme that runs also throughout his book. The influx of money from outside sources has poisoned the well, and will continue to poison the entire political process from the ground up. In particular, he is deeply critical of the way that foreign nations have essentially bought their way into Congress, and have established permanent seats at the table, if not the trough.

The lobbyists buy earmarks, loopholes, and other concessions, even favors for foreign countries. This is especially true with the Republic of Armenia which has a local constituency. Turkey hires lobbyists to counter those of the Armenians. The Iraqi government has, and still is, lobbying Congress as I speak. China and Russia, to my knowledge, have no lobbies, though China has been reported to be hiring a public relations firm. By contrast, in the early 1960's, Senator William Fullbright and the Senate Foreign Relations committee began a lengthy investigation of foreign agents, even daring to probe Israel's espionage and unlawful organization of its lobby.

Money and power, in a global economy, have no allegiance to nation or state. This is the way of the world. And after spending the better part of an hour considering all that is wrong and in need of resolution, I asked the Senator how best we ought to begin to change it. With so much set in motion, how can we ever begin to reverse course? Stevenson was as perplexed as I was, in some ways. His response, after giving it much thought himself, was that we all ought to take a more active role in our Democracy. Good people have done nothing for too long. Instead of running for office ourselves, we've outsourced that job to the wealthy, the well-connected, or the flat-out incompetent. He believes in the American people, but knows also that until we believe in ourselves, we should expect more of the same.

As I conclude what has been an extremely successful series, I would like to thank readers for their comments and their attention. For those interested, The Black Book can be purchased here.

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