Saturday, February 05, 2011

Of Lame Ducks and the 17th Amendment

As the 112th Congress begins it's work, I think it appropriate that we spend a moment meditating on the final chapter of 111th Congress, alternately dubbed the Lame Duck session or the Season of Progress, as christened by Pres Obama.
Many pundits both on the Right and the Left have trumpeted the ambitious agenda during those weeks as a political resurrection of sorts for Mr Obama, saving him from irrelevancy in the wake of the thrashing that the Democratic Party received in the elections of November. Perhaps it did. But, my primary interest is in the deeds and motives of his de facto lieutenants, outgoing Speaker, Nancy Pelosi and remaining Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid. Their roles in propelling "unfinished business" during the Lame Duck agenda - with many items tabled before the elections - to their respective chamber's floor, need to be placed in context.
Merriam- Webster defines "lame duck" as the following:

1: one that is weak or that falls behind in ability or achievement;
especially chiefly British : an ailing company
2: an elected official or group continuing to hold political office
during the period between the election and the inauguration of a
3: one whose position or term of office will soon end

Wikipedia, while by no means Gospel, chimes in on their definition page:
"Lame duck officials tend to have less political power, as other elected officials are less inclined to cooperate with them. However, lame ducks are also in the peculiar position of not facing the consequences of their actions in a subsequent election, giving them greater freedom to issue unpopular decisions or appointments."
In short, the Lame Duck sessions of Congress have traditionally (with some exceptions) been devoid of an agenda, especially extensive ones. Due to the very nature of the circumstances in that point of time, there typically exists an air of illegitimacy when defeated or otherwise outgoing officials engage in such an agenda as it can be seen as anathema to representative government in general and democracy in particular.
I won't pretend to turn a blind eye to past plays of gamesmanship on either side of the aisle, but the docket of this past Lame Duck Session seems to have totally dispensed with whatever line of self restraint the spirit of democracy imposed … and the fact of who was in control of said docket looms large.
When we examine Progressivism ( the spirit of I can only assume is implied to be invoked by coining the term "Season of Progress" during the "Season of Giving") in the same fashion as above, both the era of the early 20th century and today's advocates, in nearly universal fashion are defined or define themselves as holding democratic principles as among their guiding tenets.
One of the crowning achievements of the Progressive Era, in pursuit of reform and the advocating of democracy, was the passage of the 17th Amendment to the United States Constitution. This amendment reworked the previous system of state legislatures appointing Senators in favor of direct election by the constituency of the states.
The Framers employed the appointment system to give states a voice equal to one another, and to provide a balancing between the Houses of Congress. This ensured that part of the legislative process would be insulated from the expedient passions of the moment so that sober, cool debate on issues could play out without fear of reprisal by the public.
Direct election, by contrast, was meant to change the Senate from being an "unresponsive, aristocratic" body, to an institution more in tune with and willing to move on populist sentiments while removing the influence of special interests and “party bosses”, appointment irregularities and corruption in the appointment process.
It was also presumed that equal representation would be maintained more consistently, and a cleansing of the (debatably) widespread specter of corruption from the Senate itself would occur.
All of these reasons for the 17th's passage, ninety-seven years hence, still exist, barely mitigated in most cases ... showing just how fallible the "new" system is. Irregularities and unequal representation can and do still occur, sometimes in spectacular fashion . How unwieldy the Senate is as an institution of change is still a charge we hear even under near optimal circumstances.
As for special interests, “party bosses” and the specter of corruption, I will appeal to the reader's sensibilities of the self evident.
What is, and was, left is the argument for democracy. We, as a nation, have come to believe in the right of the people to elect and be duly represented by Senators, almost to the point that the “other system” has nearly been forgotten. Though only implied by the wording of the 17th Amendment, the move towards democracy is perhaps its only enduring legacy.
Indeed, "turning back the clock" and away from that spirit ushered in during 1913 is the length, width and breadth of any real opposition to repeal and the only one that rang with any conviction this past summer when the issue briefly became something of a hot button.
And then, the Season of Progress happened.
For a few weeks in Dec 2010, the clock turned back in time for thirteen outgoing Senators, who not only didn't need to eventually answer to the voting public as they participated in an ambitious agenda, but took the outgoing members the House of Representatives – the number being in the nineties (roughly a fifth of the 435 seat body) - along for a ride in the Way Back Machine.
In essense, because of the political expediency of portions of the agenda – much of it held back precisely because of protracted battles and fear of deeper losses in the then upcoming election, it is a fair conclusion that the timing of many of the issues the 111th Congress took up in its waning days was explicitly designed to artificially insulate some of those voting, so they could do so with the impunity of the condemned.
I would submit this as the “party bosses” at work at perhaps it's most naked.
Progressivism. This is what was invoked by our President. A movement that numbers the advancement of democracy as one of its early hallmarks and guiding tenets. It's a powerful legacy that was called upon with that christening. But a movement that takes the spirit of perhaps its most recognized and defining principle and utters it mutable in such a hypocritical manner is rendering itself morally bankrupt.
Pres Obama, Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi, the faces of modern Progressivism, may not have done anything unconstitutional in pushing their agenda, but the break with the spirit of democracy in the course of working resurrections and beating the calendar was ill advised, profound, and the final nail of fallacy in the coffin for the myth of progress via the 17th Amendment.

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