If you missed the headlines over the weekend… well, as usual, you didn’t miss much. To no-one’s real surprise, the threat of filibuster was only a threat, and Mitch and Chuck have arrived at a power-sharing agreement. Later today, the Senate will convene as a court rather than a deliberative body, and Senator Patrick Leahy — the President Pro Tem, by tradition the longest-serving member of the majority party in the Senate — is expected to preside over Donald Trump’s second impeachment.
The job might also belong to the current Vice President, by virtue of that office President of the Senate, but two centuries of Executive tradition and Senate procedure make that unlikely. By a similar quibble, as Trump has left office, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is no longer presiding officer; he would only have that authority over a sitting president — which, conspiracy theories aside, Trump is most decidedly not. Instead, one of the oldest and most infirm politicians in Washington will be expected to exercise sound judgment and nimble wit in a matter of utmost seriousness and gravity.
Senator Leahy has served in the Senate for forty-four years. Before that he spent a short time as an associate in a law firm before his appointment and subsequent re-election as a county prosecutor (State’s Attorney, it’s called in Vermont -Ed.). He’s been working as a legislator since just after Nixon; he learned the law before the Civil Rights Act was passed. In the sense of pure ability and experience, he’s probably the best person in the country to be doing this; from a perspective of health and vigor, however, he may be the worst. As a Vermont Democrat, he’s commonly understood to have his job until he either dies or retires.
Mitch McConnell is two years younger, and has been in the Senate for thirty-six years. He too has a law degree; before his election to the Senate, he served as Louisville Judge and County Executive. There are few people in Kentucky with more fame; there are few in Washington with more experience. After the recent failed effort to defeat him with an extremely well-funded grassroots campaign, McConnell remains popular in his home state and at the same time one of the most nationally despised figures in politics.
Chuck Schumer is the child of the trio; born in 1950, he’s only been in the Senate for twenty-two years. He too has a law degree — JD, Harvard — but has never worked in law, instead choosing a career in politics. He began in the New York State Assembly in 1975 and moved to the House a few years later before the Senate seat opened up. Well known as a relentless self-publicist, “The most dangerous place in Washington is between Charles Schumer and a television camera,” as Bob Dole once quipped. Much like McConnell, he is undefeatable at home yet widely hated.
The continued employment of all three of these people as top Senators mystifies many; they’re widely seen as the Enemy of the People; they’re on opposite sides yet quite friendly with each other. A frequent approach to this paradoxical situation would be to introduce term limits. Those of other parties would be overjoyed at their downfall; regardless of their own inability to replace them with their own people, they would nevertheless cost their opposition prestigious figures in committee appointments. The younger members of their own party see the longevity of senior legislators as a threat to their own promotion; they too often share this view for similar selfish reasons.
There is no single positive argument in favor of instituting term limits in the legislature. Nothing is proactive; it’s all reactionary, if not downright negative, or even venal.
The primary counterargument is this: Senior Senators and Congressmen represent the institutional memory of these bodies. Whenever there is a mass purge (as happened after Watergate, and again with the Tea Party and the present Socialist insurgencies), decades of experience in crafting laws are expelled along with the persons who are evicted. What remains is often unskilled labor; frequently, first-term Members are persons who have never held a real job, much less designed and written legislation.
In short, there exists exactly one direct beneficiary of term limits in the Federal legislature: Lobbyists, and those they serve. After all, when a senior politician leaves politics, either they go directly into lobbying work or they’re compelled to try to start a new career at an advanced age. And, while it’s often said of politicians that they’re bought and paid for by industry, any truth to this would necessarily hold that it’s the lobbyists that do the buying and selling, and industry that pays the lobbyists.
If this served the public, one would think that the politicians would not need bribes (read: campaign contributions) to do their jobs. They would instead take advice from those most skilled in an area — often indeed those in industry, or in science, or in think-tanks — and weigh each decision on its merits.
Instead, pipelines are cancelled not because they’re bad for the environment or the economy, but instead because labor unions want to keep truck drivers in jobs that a large tube of metal could perform with greater ability, efficiency, and safety. Private prisons cost more per prisoner and have a higher recidivism rate than the public option, and yet they continue to gain federal and state funding. Marijuana as a medical option is cheaper and safer than manufactured drugs by a factor of nearly one hundred, with zero risk of overdose, and yet laws continue to be made against its prescription, much less free and unfettered distribution.
There are dozens of similar examples that could readily be drawn from our daily experience, and yet as private citizens we often hold fervently to differing opinions on topics that actually leave little room for objective discussion; there’s an obvious right answer and an equally obvious wrong one, and as often as not, national debate hinges on disagreements over tertiary points that aren’t even at issue. Back to pipelines: It’s evident that we ought to be moving away from petroleum consumption, and yet until we replace oil-fired commercial power generators en masse, this simply cannot happen, and no amount of bike riding by the general public will change that. We should be discussing the relative costs and benefits of solar fields, wind farms, tidal power, new dams, and nuclear power; instead, we’re fighting over pipelines and there are billboards across Pennsylvania advertising “clean coal” as if such a thing actually exists.
So… no, term limits aren’t the answer, and Mitch and Chuck not only aren’t the problem, they’re barely symptoms. The real trouble lies in part with the uninvolvement and ignorance of the general populace, with an absence of motivation by media to educate and inform, that political parties benefit from issue exacerbation instead of problem solution, and that our economic system was designed for the realities of an industrial age of scarcity rather than an information age of plenty and even excess. Oh, and all the while, we’re viciously fighting one another over the arrangement of deck chairs.
How do we fix this? you ask, rightly despairing.
It’s actually surprisingly simple: We act to inform ourselves and each other, since nobody else is doing it; and what’s more, we take what we learn and we bring it to those who presently hold political power and engage within the robust political system we maintain to bring about societal change.
If you don’t think it works, consider just this: Our new president, “Uncle Joe” Biden, has signed executive orders this past week that (1) oppose pipelines in favor of union jobs, (2) cut Federal funding for private prisons, and (3) explicitly ignore reviewing national marijuana laws in an area where it would be not merely reasonable but instinctive and natural.
One more thing: I’ve presented drastically simplified positions on each of these three topics. There have been multiple volumes written supporting every side of these things — including some surprisingly convincing industry-sponsored propaganda which embraces “clean coal”. And yet, even in such a transparent case: Just because I call it propaganda doesn’t make it so, no more than some ad writer calling coal clean removes the sulfides from it.
So, if you know, write about it. If you don’t know, spend some time and try to find out. Don’t just ask Google; search engines stack results based on who pays more. Be inquisitive; be skeptical; spend some time and get involved.
That, at least, will be a beginning. The Not Fake News will be here to help.
Further Reading: The Case For Oligarchy
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