Senate squabble

Dateline: 22 March 2006

A respected Senator places a motion before the Senate. Immediately, dark forces conspire to ensure this motion shall never be voted on. It is not that anyone expects the resolution to pass, but so dangerous is it, that people should not even be obliged to take a position one way or the other. Preferably, it should not even be discussed.

One party, of course, wants the motion voted on, and has proposed to set aside time for the purpose. The other is using every procedural wrangle you can imagine to prevent the vote, or even the debate, from ever taking place.

Yes, you’ve guessed it. The respected Senator is a Democrat, and possible candidate for the Presidency. The dark forces who are determined to bury his resolution . . . well, they would be Democrats too. And the party leadership determined to see all the issues aired . . . that would be the Republicans. That’s how the Senate works. Remember John Kerry ‘explaining’ his stance on the $87 billion for reconstructing Iraq? “I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it”. The scariest thing is that in Senate terms, Kerry’s words made sense.

Senator Russ Feingold want to censure the President over eavesdropping on conversations between suspected terrorists and their contacts inside the US. It is not, you understand, because he thinks the President should be doing more of it. He thinks the President should be doing less. This is one important reason why his colleagues want him to shut up. Not because they necessarily disagree with him, but because they know his stance is likely to be unpopular.

Another reason, of course, that many of them would like him to shut up is the fact that he is a possible candidate for President. Several other Senators – including Hillary Clinton and Evan Bayh – believe they are intimately acquainted with Senators better equipped to be President than Russ Feingold. Bayh is even correct about this.

The censure idea is a constitutional monstrosity. It exists in the UK, where the government is accountable to Parliament. It has no place in the US, where the Presidency and Congress are co-equal heads of constitutionally separate branches of government. Only one President has been censured. Andrew Jackson, by the Whig controlled Congress. This was formally expunged from his record by a subsequent Democrat Congress.

There was an attempt to censure Bill Clinton, but this was defeated. Many Republicans felt that Clinton, being guilty of a criminal offence, deserved more than a slap on the wrist. Many Democrats felt that Clinton, being a Democrat, should be let off entirely. Between them, these factions were strong enough to defeat the proposal.

Whatever the merits of Feingold’s view on eavesdropping – and they are legally, constitutionally, and historically slim, as we have seen in a previous article – the censure has no place in the American constitution. But he believes that by yelling abuse at the President more loudly than anyone else he will secure support in his 2008 primary campaign. Republicans hope, and Democrats fear, that he is right.

Please, please, say Republicans, let the Democrats fight on the issue of terrorism. Let it be their stance that the President is trying too hard to prevent another 9/11. No wonder the rest of Feingold’s party is running for cover.

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