Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Hang-Dog Harry and Rule XXI

To anyone with an institutional memory in the Senate, the move of minority leader Harry Reid (Nev.) is rather pathetic. A showboat attempt to capture attention by shutting the Senate down for two hours hardly qualifies as good legislative procedure. And Hang Dog Harry hardly qualifies as a legendary Senate leader. He is a glum, murmuring spokesman of gloom, hardly able to inspire anyone. One cannot possibly imagine another minority leader, Everett Dirksen (IL) doing that in a Senate run by Democrats. The Senate then was classy. Why not today? The answer is politically incorrect but here goes.

In bygone days, the Senate really was a club of aristocrats: Robert A. Taft of Ohio, Eugene Milliken of Colorado, Walter George of Georgia, Mike Mansfield of Montana, Tom Connally of Texas, Warren Austin of Vermont, Margaret Chase Smith of Rhode Island, William E. Borah of Idaho, Pat Harrison of Mississippi, Richard Russell of Georgia, Alben Barkley of Kentucky. The intellectual octane was very high. Why? Because most, if not all, of these people had outside income which enabled them to regard work of the Senate as something befitting privilege without the harries of groveling for reelection. You’d be surprised how more comfortable you can be if you don’t have to worry about what to do if you lose an election. It was that confidence, the confidence of secure position from a comfortable law firm, that enabled multi-millionaire Robert Taft to do amazingly independent things. What things?

Such as: when President Truman appeared before Congress and vowed to draft the railroad strikers, incorporate them as U.S. employees and get them to go back to work—a very popular move given the country was facing paralysis in transportation—only one man vowed to block him on grounds of unconstitutionality, earning opprobrium because of it. But the courageous Taft obstruction broke the near dictatorial Truman seizure move and ended the strike as well…for which Taft never benefited from labor votes even though he saved union members from forced service. Taft had the freedom of knowing he had something to go back to, and not a lobbying job: a comfortable berth in Taft & Stettinius. In fact, under the rules of the day, one could receive pay from one’s own business. Dirksen, for example, from his law partnership in Peoria. Modern reformist rules say that this is corruption…and, indeed, industries found it advisable to get some of their legal business done via Peoria, Illinois. But what you gain in total transparency (average income Senators relying solely on their Senate paycheck) you lose in quality. I would much rather have a Dirksen as he was than a Dirksen as he could have been under the current rules. That goes for Russell, Mansfield, et al. Now in the Senate of that day were also people who lived on their Senate income. Best example: Paul Douglas of Illinois, a great lone voice of conscience. On balance, I think the country was better off under the old rules.

Remember under the old rules we had Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, Henry Clay of Kentucky, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina including a lone, one-term Congressman from Illinois who needed his pay as a lawyer to make ends meet: Abraham Lincoln. That’s why I’ve always been leery of too much reform. It looks good to the media but the unintended consequences are not. An old Greek adage, coined during the days of the Athenian republic, still stands: “When you purify the pond the lilies die.”

And consider the case of Emperor Pertinax in the Roman republic as outlined in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. He came to power as a reformer and was so stringently reform that the wheels of commerce stopped. The guys who would sell vegetables near the Roman forum and who paid off a Roman copper with a few pennies were shunted away. Things got so bad with all that purity that the equivalent of the Rome Chamber of Commerce met secretly with a mult-partisan group and decided they had enough of Pertinax, the too virtuous emperor. But they resolved to get rid of him in a style befitting an Emperor. Thus while he was praying to the gods someone slipped up behind him and strangled him with a cord. But it was a very special, golden cord, reflecting his status. Fair enough: the guys with the vegetable carts returned to their stands in front of the forums, tipping the cops. Everybody was happier: the vegetable guys, the cops, the consumers.

Don’t think I’m taking it out on poor Hangdog Harry. But he’s a creature who was created by misguided “reforms.” The so-called campaign reform finance bill has done a great deal to winnow down the quality, forcing Congressmen to run across the street to a non-governmental building and call up people to urge them to give $1,000 apiece. Do you know how long that takes to raise money for an average campaign that runs sometimes to more than a million per congressional district? The TV media loves reform but of course they should: since their vehicle of communication costs so much it sends good candidates into penury to pay for it all. Enough reform.

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