Behind the Lens

Can Congress Really Work Together?

Photos and Commentary by Jeff Malet | June 30th, 2010 |
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) locks hands with Republican Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA).
Jeff Malet
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) locks hands with Republican Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA).

I assure you that my images on this page are not the result of trick photography or Photoshop chicanery. That is indeed House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer locking hands with Republican Whip Eric Cantor. And that’s outspoken conservative Congresswoman Jean Schmidt having her softball signed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

There they were. Members of Congress of both parties wielding baseball bats, but not at each other.

For one entire evening, bipartisanship indeed reigned supreme as female members of Congress participated at the Second Annual Congressional Women’s Softball game at Guy Mason Park on June 16. The fundraiser raised money for the Young Survival Coalition, a breast cancer advocacy group. The D.C. Women’s Press Corps team came back from an early deficit to defeat the Congressional members squad 13-7 in a spirited match. It was much closer than the final score would indicate, with the Congressional team actually leading until the final inning against a Press team that was, on average, literally half their age.

It’s unfortunate that convivial Congressional events such as these are so rare. The “process” is partly to blame. Members of Congress require enormous quantities of cash to get re-elected. Fundraising demands that they spend a large amount time traveling back to their own districts, leaving less opportunity to socialize with their peers.

Apparently, the way to raise the big money these days is to appeal to the more extreme elements. Partisan acrimony seemed to reach a low point when, during the last Presidential State of the Union address, South Carolina Republican Congressman Joe Wilson screamed “You lie!” Wilson promptly became a hero to the right wing, and millions of dollars poured into his coffers.

Joe Wilson’s remark was not the lowest point in Congressional incivility. That might have been in the spring of 1856, when another South Carolina Congressman, Preston Brooks, assaulted Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts literally on the floor of the United States Senate. Sumner had given a speech attacking Brooks’ relative, Senator Andrew Butler. A few days later, Brooks confronted Sumner at his writing desk in the Senate Chamber. Brooks said, “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.” As Sumner began to stand up. Brooks began beating Sumner with his wooden walking cane which had a gold head. Sumner, trapped by his desk and blinded by his own blood, collapsed into unconsciousness. Brooks continued to beat Sumner until he broke his cane.

Other Senators rose to help Sumner but were blocked by fellow South Carolina Congressman Laurence M. Keitt, who took out a pistol, shouting “Let them be!” Sumner would be unable to return to his duties in the Senate for three years while he recovered. South Carolinians sent Brooks brand new canes with one bearing the inscription “Hit him again.” Brooks resigned his seat but his constituents, considering him a hero, promptly returned him to Congress.

It is no accident that Congress today has a favorability rating only slightly higher than that of British Petroleum.

As everyone knows, a filibuster is a form of parliamentary obstruction in which a lone member of a legislative body can delay or prevent a vote on a legislative measure. It is not new. One of the first known practitioners of the filibuster was the Roman senator Cato the Younger over 2,000 years ago. There was a rule at the time that all business in the Roman Senate had to be wrapped up by nightfall. With his long-winded speeches, Cato would stop a vote just by talking — and talking. Needless to say, Julius Caesar was not pleased.

Our legislative branch of government had worked reasonably well over the years precisely because the filibuster was only rarely invoked. A minority party that can keep its members in line has the power to stop any legislation or nomination in its tracks, which is what the Republicans have done on almost every occasion since Obama became president.

Under the rules of the U.S. Senate, any senator can speak on any subject unless three-fifths of the Senate (60 members) bring debate to a close by invoking cloture under Rule XXII. Changes to the Senate rules can be changed by a simple majority. Unfortunately, a rule change itself can be filibustered, which makes any change difficult. In the current environment when the majority party fears becoming the minority party, the prospect of eliminating the filibuster rule would seem remote at best.

Clearly this is not what our Founding Fathers intended. I do not suggest that the parties have to agree. Partisan differences are healthy necessities in an American democracy, but serious matters such as immigration, energy, our environment, the deficit and unemployment all demand immediate attention. In a rapidly changing environment, doing nothing is seldom a good option.

The filibuster rule is a purposeless artifact from another time and place. At Wimbledon and the World Cup elimination rounds, someone has to advance, and a tiebreaker is often used to establish a winner. Penalty kicks wouldn’t do too well in the Senate, but a simple up or down vote would work just fine.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “in free governments the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns.” That’s a tall challenge, to be sure, but the harmony that prevailed on a Georgetown softball field offers the prospect that all things are possible.

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