Contempt for democracy



Earlier this week, several high-ranking military commanders, all of them currently assigned to U.S. Pacific Command, Strategic Command, and U.S. Forces Korea, boarded planes at their overseas posts and flew half way around the world so that they could testify in Washington yesterday at a long-scheduled readiness hearing conducted by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The generals arrived on time, only to discover that they had wasted their time. The Senate hearing had been canceled.

Meanwhile, in preparation for a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee hearing, witnesses from the State Department, the Defense Department, and the Government Accountability Office had cleared their schedules to testify yesterday about an issue that's crucial to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan: our training of the national Afghan police, and the need for greater oversight.

But this Senate hearing was canceled, too.

Meanwhile, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee was conducting a session yesterday morning on a sensitive issue - homeless military veterans, and what can be done to help them - when the chairman was informed that the session had to be shut down, pronto, scarcely an hour after it had been convened.

These cancellations and disruptions (among others) were not precipitated by bad weather, or a power outage, or a busted water main, or a national emergency. They happened because the Republicans were behaving like toddlers.

Having failed to get their way on health reform, the losers threw a tantrum and refused to let the grownups get on with the everyday business of governing - actually for the second straight day, thus confirming the recent vow by John "Country First" McCain that there "will be no cooperation for the rest of the year."

It's very easy to gum up the Senate machinery out of sheer spite. By tradition, senators agree each day, via bipartisan "unanimous consent," to schedule their committee hearings throughout the day. But if somebody refuses to give their consent, a characteristically arcane Senate rule kicks in: no hearings can be conducted after 2 p.m., and all morning hearings have to be suspended two hours after the Senate has convened.

Senators have rarely invoked this rule, hewing instead to the daily courtesy of unanimous consent. That's the tradition, for both parties; way back in 1960, one political expert called it "institutional patriotism." More recently, Senate scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein wrote wistfully of that bipartisan era: "Senators were intensely loyal to the Senate as an institution; they identified first as senators, rather than as partisans or through their ideology."

But this current Republican crew apparently has no qualms about trashing the place, even if it means undercutting military commanders and Afghan trainers and homeless veterans - all of whom they profess to care so much about. (If the situation was reversed, and the Democrats were pulling this kind of stunt, the GOP would have already assailed the Democrats for being "against the troops.") So why is the GOP pulling this stunt? As the Democratic chairwoman of the Homeland Security subcommittee lamented yesterday, "I don't get it."

Actually, it's not so hard to get. Grinding all this Senate business to a halt is a way for the party insiders to bond with their unhinged outsiders; it's the polite, parliamentary equivalent of screaming impolite epithets at Democratic House members.

Forcing the cancellation of various Senate military hearings, in the service of a hissy fit, is not remotely as visceral as vandalizing various congressional and Democratic party offices, or leaving death threats on a congressman's voicemail, or sending a picture of a hangman's noose to a black congressman, or cutting the propane gas line at the home of a congressman's brother, or threatening the families of congressmen, but it's precisely the same in one key respect. It's a contempt for democracy.