The Constitution that governs the way Congress works merely says the president “shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate” to nominate officials in the government. It can offer it or withhold it.
It also gives each house of Congress the sole power “to determine the rules of its proceedings .” We are governed by majority rule, but also with the proviso that the minority in Congress has certain rights to guard against the tyranny of the majority.
There’s a long history of political battles over the rules that govern the minority’s rights in Congress, but the news media sometimes exaggerates the tenor and tone of these disputes.
“The once-genteel Senate is looking more like a fight club,” The Washington Post declared this week.
“The U.S. Senate, once considered the most exclusive and chummy club in America, has in recent years been transformed into an ideological war zone, where comity and compromise have lost their allure.”
In fact, the fights being waged today are nothing like the legislative donnybrooks that took place in the old days when there were fistfights, duels and worse.
In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s brilliant book, “Team of Rivals,” about Abraham Lincoln’s presidency during the Civil War, she tells of Delaware Sen. Willard Saulsbury’s gun-wielding “liquor-fueled harangue” against Lincoln, calling him “an imbecile,” among other things.
“Called to order by Vice President Hamlin, he refused to take his seat. When the sergeant at arms approached to take Saulsbury into custody, he pulled out his revolver. ‘Damn you,’ he said, pointing the pistol at the sergeant’s head, ‘if you touch me I’ll shoot you dead.” The wild scene continued for some time before Saulsbury was removed from the Senate floor.”
That was mild compared to the day South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks walked into the Senate with a heavy cane and savagely bludgeoned Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner over his anti-slavery speech, nearly killing him.
Despite all of Congress’ institutional failings, and its inability to come to grips with the overwhelming economic and social ills that afflict our country, Capitol Hill is a far more civil place than in years long past.
It remains polarized because of deep ideological beliefs on both sides of the aisle, a chief executive who is in over his head and cannot lead, and a divided electorate — one that wants a lot more government and the other that wants a lot less.
This week, however, the two sides came together in a compromise that avoided the “nuclear” trigger. No one got everything they wanted, but everyone lived to fight another day.
Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.