Thursday, December 17, 2009

A New Idea: Talk To Me!

MeanMesa knows that there is no shortage of defeated resignation among citizens when they watch the Senate, time after time after time, debate matters which don't matter and then make deals with people who have no business dictating our lives. This situation will not be limited to what they have now successfully done to what used to be health care insurance reform -- it extends gleefully to banking regulation, cap and trade carbon legislation, Afghanistan, you name it.

The Senators are dancing on our check books. They are not embarrassed by their psychotic avarice. They care very little about what we might think of it. They have no intention to stop the practice.

They just keep looking at each other and, when there are no red faces or voices of Constitutional patriotism staring back, the mayhem gets even worse. More outrageous. More egregious. They have long since ceased considering what they might see on our faces.

In fact, all those far roaming, allegorical complaints about the absence of statesmanship among the denizens of that house of thieves grows more and more believable the longer we watch them. Is there no way to bring the Senate back to its far more noble tradition?

There might be.

We can begin by considering the popular definition of statesmanship. One ability included in the definition is debate. Statesmen should be persuasive debaters. For younger MeanMesa visitors who have never actually seen a debate, it runs like this. There is a proposition which is in contention between the sides of the debate, that is, an argument which has at least two possible conclusions.

The Traditional Meaning of Debate

The debate itself is an organized (there are rules and a structure which are enforced by a moderator...) chance for speakers from either side of the contended argument to try to persuade debate judges that they are "right" and the other guy, well, isn't. Of course, the debaters prepare for the session by studying all the information which might help them make their case and "cooking up" special parts of their arguments which they hope will be impressive to the judges.

One great benefit of debates when they are done this way is that everything comes out. The last thing one of the debaters wants is to be confronted by either some compelling information or something "cooked up" by his opponent. Because of this, debates are not solely decided on the validity of the information presented, but also on passion, the ability to think on one's feet (a feature which usually helps keep either side from outright lying...), confidence and speaking ability.

When all these traits are manifest on the floor of a debate, watch out because something interesting is about to happen.

The Senate's Meaning of Debate

Unhappily, there are debates and then, there are debates. When we see the grizzled face of a Senator on the News Hour, he will speak of "debate in the Senate." What he refers to is not very similar to what is described above. In the Senate, clerks and consultants have thrashed through every word of what will be said, fortressing the whole speech so not a single thing can become a "fish hook" for the other party. The resulting oration is usually a well greased, watered down mishmash with a couple of harmless "talking points" inserted here and there to satisfy the evening news.

All the really important communication does not rely on the "debate." It will be handled in back rooms with assistants and lobbyists. Lobbyists with checkbooks. The "floor debate" is intended for our consumption, even though no living human can endure much of what is offered. The only exception to this is that lobbyists can endure it. They will listen to see if their masters "got their money's worth."

Further, the Senators don't even speak to each other. They will all speak to a CHAIR which represents the President of the Senate. There is no "give and take" between Senators conducted anywhere that we might hear it. The "give and take" must be undertaken secretly -- usually in back rooms -- where bribery and corruption are not so embarrassing and no one outside the backroom can be certain about who was actually there.

That dismal picture is usually what is called "debate" in our United States Senate.

Other Interesting Senatorial Habits

When a Senator thinks about what we would ordinarily call a "debate judge," he will claim that his "debate" will be judged by the American citizens in his constituency. Now granted, any of us stupid enough to watch this old worm stagger through his prepared speech might emerge from the suffocating calamity with an opinion (about either the proposition or the Senator...), but there will be no "judging." The "judging" will be conducted when the Senate has a floor vote and all the other Senators -- who have also probably NOT listened to Old Senator Gas Bag's carefully crafted speech without "fish hooks" either -- will cast their ayes and nays as they have been instructed by their respective lobbyists.

When Senators appear on public media, they are allowed to say that a vast majority of the American people want precisely what the Senator wants them to want which usually turns out to be what their lobbyists want the Senator to want them to want. If that is a bit ponderous, then the theme has been accurately set!

For example, Senator McChinless from down south somewhere keeps saying that the American people don't want a public option in the health care insurance reform bill. Senator McChinless (he wears perfectly round eyeglasses...) knows that poll after poll says exactly the opposite, but he can continue to say over and over whatever he wants or whatever his lobbyists have told him to say.

And, Senator McChinless in the perfectly round glasses is not alone in this brazen prevaricating. Senator Botox Rat Face, also from down South somewhere, and Senator Happy Farmer from out in the midwest somewhere, all compete with each other to see who can say the most lies about "what the vast majority of Americans want." There are many others. The GOP has run out of any convincing ideas a decade ago, so these new "ideas" of theirs are presented over and over, even in the face of overwhelming contradicting evidence -- evidence that they are as unpopular with the electorate as unionized bed lice.

Ah, Satan's Garden of Human Delights is crowded with under-informed voters. The circus's center ring is orchestrated by Ohio's Orange Tan (not orangutan...) who eagerly recaps the lies of the others on his masters' wholly owned "news" networks.

Normally, such a bad habit would "catch up" to these wormy ScrewTapes sooner or later, but their masters have taken the precaution of purchasing the media. Because of this, all these liars can just "roar on ahead" as long as they please. Public sentiments mean nothing. Lobbyist checks mean everything.

But, this MeanMesa post is not about campaign finance reform. It's about debating.

This discussion would be remiss indeed if it neglected to mention the most favored Senate habit of all -- cloture. Cloture is the bastion of the filibuster. Without cloture, there can be no "debate" on the floor of the Senate. Conveniently, 60 of the Senate's 100 votes must be cast in favor at cloture hearings for proposed bills to reach the floor of the Senate for their subsequent "debate."

For example, in the matter of the health care reform bill, it is precisely this "cloture" which has required everything including the "kitchen sink" to be quietly negotiated away in hopes of avoiding a filibuster. The sagging fragment of what is left is now being blocked by the imposition of yet more arcane "Senate rules." When "cloture" is blocked, there can be no "debate." But wait, there wasn't really ever going to be be any "debate" anyway!

Now, there are those among us who believe that simply forcing the obstructionists to physically filibuster -- in other words, actually perform their "threat" -- would embarrass the miscreants enough to somewhat rectify the situation. MeanMesa doubts this. Republicans have taken great efforts to have "extra thick skin" and uninformed constituencies.

But what's left?

MeanMesa's Solution: Real Debates Where We Are the Judges

How would something like this actually work?

In the Senate there are clearly two identifiable "sides" at play in every case of proposed legislation. If our basic ideas both about the Senate and about debate are reasonable, those Senators should be happy to have an opportunity to "debate" the matter. This means actually debate, not the toothless masquerade we're accustomed to seeing on the Senate floor.

The rules of the Senate would remain in the Senate. No Senate rules would prevail in our new public debates -- they would be controlled by debate rules. The "sides" would be forced to argue their positions in oratorical combat with their opponents. They would be forced to say what those positions were and defend them. Constituents could watch these Senators hash out their best plans and ideas in a transparency beyond anything we have seen in our lifetimes.

Once the "gauntlet had been cast down," refusing to debate would be political suicide.

The voters watching the debate would have a chance to set their own opinions about what had been debated. If the voters viewing the debates concluded that one proposition was persuasive and then watched as the Senate enacted the opposite into law, voting choices would become obvious. Extremely obvious. Hopefully, frighteningly obvious!

The "sides" could challenge each other with "I dare you to stand in a public debate with this position of yours." The "sides" could agree on the precise proposition to be debated. No more artsy, clever "Gotcha" questions from over paid pundits! Real debates aren't "prompted" by a string of cutesy, trick questions. They are the battlegrounds for settling the proposition both "sides" agreed to debate. The winner captures the support of the voters.

Senate campaign "war chests" are based on the idea that we will vote for someone -- anyone -- if he can just buy enough television commercials, hence the reprehensible effect of lobbyist money. We can replace that old technique with real debates! Senator versus Senator, no holds barred, right on our television sets debating proposed Senate legislation, not simply promoting ill defined, gaseous generalities about "Change," "Peace," "Family Values," "Prosperity" or some other nonsense.

Yup. We're talking blood soaked specifics here. Let the sides select their speakers and take on the public option or single payer! Let the chosen orators support or disclaim increasing troop strengths in Afghanistan, spending stimulus money, regulating banks, capping carbon emissions or changing education policy. The mind-numbing cordiality of the Senate would be left in the Senate. The debate would be for the hearts and minds of the voters!

Real time!

The debates would no longer be a confusing act perpetrated under the out-of-date protection of the Senate. They would be acts of transparent democracy. Voter opinion -- not back room deals -- would become the final authority on matters such as "cloture" and "floor debates."

Centuries ago, the earliest democracies in ancient Greece and Imperial Rome were directed by exactly this approach. It is a tradition to which we should return. The reason ancient Athens attacked Macedonia was because Demosthenes convinced the Assembly! His Phillipics were so famous that we now find them in the Harvard Classics.

This reintroduction of active statesmanship would force the chosen Senators to present their arguments with clear statements, formal information and passion. The "majority of Americans want" crap would be instantly challenged if it were to be uttered in an active debate instead of the safe, painless isolation of a talk show interview. The statesmen would unavoidably emerge from the process. The hill billies, bigots, crooks and looters would be "sitting ducks" for the onslaught of the opposition, and we would have a chance to see all of it for ourselves.

Should this practice "catch on," even local elections would improve. Local candidates certainly would.

Cast in comparison with such great debaters as William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, this Senate sucks. MeanMesa is "done" with the lot of them.

It's going to be up to us to fix it.

Articles about what's going on in our Senate:
From BeltWay Blips (quoting Huffington Post)
and from Emory University, Stanton Abramson, The Emory Wheel:

No comments:

Post a Comment