Recently I watched a very impressive Border Collie quickly herd what appeared to be a hundred or so sheep into a pen. A hundred sheep, one dog—compliant behavior dramatized.
In the Congress the Border Collie is called a Whip. His/her job is to whip colleagues to support the Party position. Whip is perhaps an unfortunate choice of words; it suggests painful consequences for not following the Party line. Maybe the word Persuader would be superior but that would imply some give and take on legislative content.
The $3.5 trillion package of so-called social infrastructure legislation was cooked up by Senator Bernie Sanders and bought by Joe Biden. And there has been almost no real research by the Congress on this development.
But, let us concede that there are important societal goals in the legislative package, as the package encircles virtually every domestic activity pursued by governments at all levels. Yet, when this package of exceedingly costly initiatives is being covered by the news media the coverage largely involves the vote counting drama. The drama includes arcane Senate rules dealing with budget reconciliation and the tension between the so-called progressive and centrist wings of the Democratic Party.
The news often distills down to personalities. Reports often characterize this as a contest between Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, and Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema whose support is necessary in the Senate. Pelosi is overseeing the whipping in the House, Senator Chuck Schumer in the Senate and the guessing game is how compliant the two centrist senators will be.
The Congress, and I’m talking about what is arguably the most important institution in our democracy, is submerged beyond the reach of its snorkel. American adults appear to be largely disillusioned with U.S. federal government institutions; new polling by Gallup showing just 12 percent has confidence in Congress.
Newsweek, that reported the poll in July of this year, noted: “Although few Americans expressed confidence in most U.S. institutions, the level for Congress was the lowest of all the institutions Gallup asked respondents about.”
Perhaps it’s just me, but when Members of Congress appear to have forsaken their agency for a package of programs and tax increases amounting to a financial number that is inconceivable to all but supercomputers, the institution is on the edge of an abyss.
We have all watched as legislators have yielded to Party control to enact some really inane stuff. The Texas abortion law is a recent example. You can be pro-life and find its version of vigilante enforcement to be too clever by half. So nobody expects anything like perfection or just good, but come on, when a nation’s elected representatives can be whipped like sheep responding to a Border Collie, we have trouble as the Music Man would say “right here in River City.” In this case River City in on the shores of the Potomac River.
I am left with one overriding question. Are there institutionalists who value the integrity of Congress, who are willing to put their leadership to the test? Returning Congress to a position of strength and respect is, in a democracy, of ultimate importance.
Order is needed; there is a need for legislative sanity—in the Congress this is called Regular Order. Wikipedia sums it up: “Regular order within the context of the United States Congress refers to the semi-strict or strict application of committee and subcommittee processes, including public hearing opportunities and the holding of multiple votes. Said processes are designed to promote consensus-based forms of decision-making, particularly in terms of fostering accommodations for minority viewpoints. In the context of the broader history of the U.S. Congress, regular order is closely associated with bipartisanship.” As the parliamentarian is said to say, “let there be order.”
My mind captures the moment, just not the exact date. I think it was two nights after 9/11/01. The place was a Presbyterian church in midtown Manhattan. It is my guess that most of the people at the memorial service for the victims of the bombing of lower-Manhattan were living in New York. Many corridors of transportation remained closed.
My wife and I went to the service with a neighbor who was Jewish. Many faiths were coming together and that is what it was about. We needed to come together. We needed to recall shared humanity and a universality of faith. Faith, not division.
Friends, having found out we were in Manhattan on 9/11, often ask what we remember. For me the day began under a cerulean blue sky and ended in pungent smoke and haze. Evil is like that.
But I recall standing in line to give blood, the humanity of the City and especially the two days after the day when Christians, Jews and Muslims stood together and sang God Bless America.
And now, take a walk in the neighborhoods of New York’s Boroughs and as you pass the fire stations look for the plaque—the plaque that recognizes the firefighters from that station who died that day to save others. There is just something about the spirit of humans acting beyond their earthly humanity that is especially humbling.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.