February 9, 2017

In DeVos and Sessions Hearings, McConnell Further Dismantles Democratic Norms

Democracy in Crisis

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

"Don't make me use this, Liz."

Watching the last couple days in the Senate has been like reading a Roman author on the decline of the Republic in real time. 

Next week’s column will provide more thorough observations, but just for the sake of some sanity, I’ve got to unpack a little of this here.

As Trump’s cabinet appointees make their way towards confirmation votes by the full Senate, the minority Democrats have done all they could to slow the process down.

In my last column, I called them the worst possible opposition party and the spirited, if futile, defense, has surprised me—even if they are inevitably left without a victory.

But the heroic part of the fight is not against Trump’s nominees, but for the Democratic processes that should serve as some small check on the power of the ruling party.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) led the all-night charge against the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the secretary of education, arguing that “public education is a core principle” in our country and that DeVos wants to cut it.

"Can you commit to us tonight that you will not work to privatize public schools or cut a single penny from public education?" Murray asked in an exchange in an earlier committee hearing that she says solidified her opposition to DeVos.

"I'm hopeful that we can work together to find common ground, and ways that we can solve those issues and empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children that are right for them," DeVos answered.

"I take that as not being willing to commit to not privatizing public schools or cutting money from education," Murray said.

"I guess I wouldn't characterize it in that way,” DeVos said.

Murray laughed. “Well, OK.”

But she was not laughing as DeVos’ nomination was only one vote away from the scrapheap after two Republican senators,  Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, pledged to vote against her.

On Monday night, a crowd gathered at a park outside the capitol, where senators and stakeholders spoke, accompanied by chants of, “Just one more.”

One after another, throughout the long night, Democratic senators took to the podium and talked about how they had never had so many calls or emails against a nomination before.

“It’s not Democrats who are bitter about the election. It’s the American people who are bitter about this nomination,” New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said early Tuesday morning.

“Betsy DeVos is the negative trifecta,” Schumer said, arguing that she was negative on competence, negative on philosophy and negative on ethics, claiming that her conflicts of interest “are legion.”

“She couldn’t get her paperwork in on time. How is someone who is going to run the Department of Education with tens of thousands of employees and not get her paperwork in on time?” he asked. “She should go back for a second hearing now that her paperwork is in.”

By then, it had been a long night full of passionate speeches in an attempt to convince another senator to jump the aisle.

“I hope against hope that another Republican will have the courage of the senators from Alaska and Maine.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—the man who held up Obama’s Supreme Court nomination for almost a year and came up with the strategy of opposing everything Obama did from day one—said “Now is the time to put country before party,” and complained that two weeks into Trump’s term, he has fewer cabinet members confirmed than anyone “since George Washington.”

“So yeah, now is the time,” he said.

But no one, save the the two brave defectors, put country above party. The vote was a tie. For the first time in history, the vice president, now Mike Pence, voted to break a tie on a cabinet nominee.

Later in the day, Pence swore DeVos in.

Despite the fact that the Republican senators followed up this narrow and bruising victory by voting to limit the debate on the nomination of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, Democrats launched another defensive against the notoriously racist Senator from Alabama.

Sometime around 8 p.m., Sen. Elizabeth Warren was reading from a letter written by Coretta Scott King against Sessions in 1986, when he had been appointed to a federal judgeship.

"Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge."

McConnell stepped forward and interrupted, seemingly on the new right wing principle that it is worse to be called a racist than to be a racist, saying that Warren violated Rule 19 and “impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama.” Warren was “red carded” for the remainder of the debate, but she read King’s entire letter on Facebook Live and the internet exploded with supporters quoting McConnell, who said, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless she persisted.”

Republicans voted along party lines to enforce the rule against Warren, but Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, of Oregon, read the letter, in defiance of McConnell.

Rule 19, ironically, came to be when South Carolina Senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman attacked a young protege on the Senate floor in 1902 after their words had grown too heated. Tillman’s “Red Shirts” terrorized African Americans during reconstruction and was a precursor to the KKK. Coretta Scott King originally wrote the letter that McConnell did not want Warren to read to Strom Thurmond, an admirer of Tillman, who ran for president on a platform of Segregation.

After gaining a Supreme Court nomination for his party, by refusing to hear Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, McConnell seems to think that he can wield any rule or imagined rule of the Senate in any way he wishes.

How sitting senators are supposed to be vetted for cabinet positions if one cannot read historical concerns about their character or political positions into the public record? Doesn't this encourage president's to appoint senators, so they may not be questioned? And wouldn't that, in turn, encourage senators to play the puppy dog to the executive branch when it is controlled by their party? 

The danger that such a move does to the institution of the senate may turn out to be more dangerous than the sexism of a male trying to silence the voice of a female colleague or a white person silencing the voice of an African American legend. McConnell’s move seems to be another concerted effort to consolidate the power of the nation’s single ruling party and as such is an affront to democracy.