- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become a fan of an eclectic magazine called Mars Hill Audio, which I listen to driving to work. Every couple of months my two-CD set arrives in the mail featuring six to eight thought-provoking interviews conducted by Ken Myers, a former National Public Radio correspondent, who explores the intersection of faith, culture, politics, the arts and literature with a diverse set of experts. Listening to Mr. Myers is a great way to redeem the gridlock of the 14th Street Bridge during morning rush hour.

One of Mr. Myers’ guests this month was Ralph Wood, a theology and literature professor at Baylor University, who discusses Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor and her perspectives on human nature and contemporary culture. According to Mr. Wood, Ms. O’Connor believed our demand for “feel good” experiences and aversion to difficult choices was one of the chief moral shortcomings of the modern age. She wrote about the value of embracing and enduring hard choices. Ms. O’Connor praises adversity’s value, saying “grace has to wound before it can heal.”

While snarled in traffic yesterday, I started thinking about this week’s debate over judges in the Senate and stem-cell research in the House. These are contentious issues that generate strong passions and muscular rhetoric on all sides. And according to recent media coverage and commentary by pundits, Congress is harming its image by tackling such difficult issues. The Outlook section of The Washington Post on Sunday included a piece titled “The Wreck of the U.S. Senate.” The New York Times had a front-page Sunday story arguing that recent contentious fights in Congress are “inflicting new damage on the public image of Congress and both parties.”

The Senate kicked the can on confirmation drama over judges — avoiding a showdown for the time being, while the House debated stem-cell research. And while the issues don’t have a direct connection, they are linked. Both are steeped in controversy, but are critical debates that help exercise the muscle of our constitutional democracy, avoiding the atrophy caused by easy choices.

Take the judge-confirmation debate. When I worked in the White House four years ago, many nominees were stranded with no control over their destiny — pawns in a larger Senate chess match. As they labored to overcome “holds” and other procedural delays, I often thought the only way to change the situation would be to shine a bright light on their plight and raise public awareness about how many presidential nominees never get an up-or-down vote. Two years ago the Brookings Institution’s Paul Light agreed, advocating a Senate rule change calling for an up-or-down vote on all executive nominees. But nothing happened until recently, when the high-level debate and media attention has helped citizens understand more about the confirmation process and its pitfalls. This week’s compromise was not perfect, but at least it will get a few more qualified jurists confirmed. It’s been arduous, but focusing the national spotlight on this issue will benefit future nominees; it should not be minimized.

The stem-cell debate is another example. The House passed legislation this week opening up new lines of embryonic stem cells for federally funded research. While President Bush has promised to veto the bill, saying he doesn’t want to destroy life in order to possibly save it, this is another daunting issue that deserves illumination. I agree with Mr. Bush’s strong desire to promote a culture of life; too few people understand the ethical and moral implications of the stem-cell debate. Focusing the spotlight on it this week will help Americans understand the slippery ethical slope we’re embarking upon in the name of “scientific progress” — and that there are less troubling approaches to research on stem cells.

Judicial nominations and stem-cell research represent two of the thorniest issues Congress will address this year. Many would like this cup to pass from lawmakers’ lips and focus instead on “easier” issues, believing less controversial issues will boost congressional approval. Not true. These debates, however hard, are necessary. Congress is a sturdy institution; frankly, incumbents know how to protect themselves. Any wound inflicted by addressing a controversial issue will heal. Governing means more than winning popularity contests. Ms. O’Connor would have loved the darker and more diabolical moments of these controversies — because she knew there would be a greater reckoning.

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