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William C. Altreuter
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Monday, May 24, 2004

As a junior in college I worked for a semester as an intern at the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution. It was an interesting experience that hasn't provided nearly enough grist for Outside Counsel. I did get a chance to see some legendary figures in action: Virgina's William Scott, the man voted "Dumbest Senator", who held a press conference to deny it was the Minority Leader of the Subcommittee, for example. (Scott stories were particular favorites among staff members-- he was truly astonishingly stupid.) Orrin Hatch was a freshman Senator back then-- I sat in the room and listened in amazement as he testified at a hearing on D.C. representation in Congress, opposing the proposed Constitutional amendment that would have granted this to the residents of the District on the grounds that doing so would open the door to minority groups in the states to seek representation in the House and Senate. I got to see Alabama's James Allen invent a filibuster technique to stall ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty-- and I got to meet S. I. Hayakawa, who argued that "we stole it fair and square." I saw James O. Eastland, and John Stennis, Strom Thurmond, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. I came away from the experience with a pretty good Bob Dole story, and a respect for the institution. It is, and always has been, as populated by fools and poltroons as any other gathering its size, but it has mostly done what it was intended to do, and the breakdown that we are witnessing is a sad thing to see. This excellent essay about why this is happening seems to me to really nail the explanation.

There is, I think, a way out: it will not come by way of rules changes, or legislation-- in many ways those aspects of the Senate's function are big contributions factors in the creation of its present breakdown. What I think needs to happen if for the members who take the role of the institution seriously to begin flexing the powers that come with the oversight process. John McCain (who I don't really care for) and Teddy Kennedy (who I'm not that crazy about, either) both seem to realize this, and they are both much more effective as Senators because they do. If I stop and think about it for 15 minutes I can probably come up with the names of 15 more Senators who could be doing more good by being more active in this capacity. We don't need more laws-- we need to understand what is going on with the systems, programs and institutions that our present laws have created. The Senate, with its presumption of longevity and continuity, is set up to do this, and Senators that can pry their eyes from the reflection of the man who should be President that they see in the mirror every morning should be doing this job. When that starts happening, some of the sense of working together that the members seem to have lost will be restored, and we may see a Senate that dithers less, and governs better. It may be that we are already seeing this: The events at Abu Ghraib seem to have stirred John Warner into action, and there seem to be some other Senators who are beginning to realize that they've been played for chumps, too. It's a damn shame that none of them stirred themselves to make the sorts of inquiries that they should have and could have before we put our country into this disaster, but if they are paying attention now, that can only be a good thing. (Electrolite pointed me to The Decembrist. I wonder if I'd have ever met any of these Brooklynites if I'd stayed in the City of Homes and Churches.)

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