News & Politics

The Folly of 'Up or Down' Politics

The compromise over judicial nominations in the Senate does little to challenge the misleading way the GOP has framed the debate.
In his zeal to do away with any opposition to President Bush's judicial nominees, Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) has been disorienting the Senate by repeating the phrase "up or down vote." If you tuned into CSPAN-2 and listened to what Republican senators were saying,  sure, the faces looked different, but the words were the same:  "Up or Down Vote," said Bill First. "Up or Down Vote," said Chuck Grassley.  "Up or Down Vote," said Bob Dole ... said Mitch McConnell. 

It's hypnotic this latest GOP attempt to frame political debate to their advantage.  With so many important issues at stake, all the Republicans keep saying is: Up or down, up or down, up or down, up or down ...

And who can blame them?  It's a powerful little phrase. 

At first glance, it seems that the GOP logic is just this:  "Up" means "Yes" and "Down" means "No."  An up or down vote in this logic is just a "yes" or "no" vote.  Senators are either for or against President Bush's judicial nominees.  But if we think about it, this "yes-or-no" idea is just one small part of what the GOP is trying pass off on the American people.  The bigger idea is much more troubling.

The idea being advanced by Bill Frist and Co. in the Senate is that a Senate vote is nothing more than a "yes" or "no" to the will of the president.  In this logic, all senators are supposed to do is agree or disagree with what the president sends them -- thumbs up or thumbs down to the will of the president.  Such is the life and work of a senator according to the GOP majority attempting to take over Congress.

But wait one cloture stopping second.  That's not what being a senator is about at all!  Senators are not elected by the president; they are elected by citizens and are, therefore, first and foremost responsible to those citizens. 

Voting in the Senate is not about agreeing or disagreeing with the will of the president.  Voting in the Senate is about standing up for one's constituents.  It's about being responsible to those who voted for the senators.  And last I checked, when the president votes for a senator, that vote is not any more important than the vote of anyone else. 

Voting in the Senate is about speaking for and standing with one's constituents.  When a senator votes, it's not about giving thumbs up or thumbs down, but about standing with the American people.

Remember the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution?  Sure you do.  That's the amendment, passed in 1913 during the progressive era of the United States, which mandated that Senators should be elected by the people.  This is an amazing fact that most Americans do not know.  Just prior to the passage of Social Security, the United States ratified the Constitution so that senators were no longer appointed by state legislators, but were directly elected by the people -- and responsible to them.

Prior to 1913, the average senator  had no responsibility in particular to the people of his state (they were all men back then).  The senator was responsible to the people who appointed him -- state party machine bosses -- and to the leader of the party.

So, when Bill First  standss up on the floor of the Senate and tells us that the senators have a responsibility to the president, he is asking America to throw out the Seventeenth Amendment.  He is asking us to turn back the clock to the time before 1913 when senators didn't have any responsibility to the people, but were only responsible to the leaders of the party.

That's the real issue at stake in this "up or down" logic.  Whether Senators should stand with the people when they vote or should just sign off on the will of the party boss.

The down side to all this "up or down" logic is that Dems are trapped in a frame that makes them the nay-sayers of the Senate.  Frist and Co. are making it seem that they have a positive agenda and the Democrats are blocking the will of the people. 

Nonsense.

But it's been tricky for a visibly fatigued Minority leader, Harry Reid, to get out of this "up or down" logic.  So, rather than giving a long drawn out prescription, I've just decided to give Harry Reid a speech -- a short speech for him to use on the floor of the Senate, free of charge. The goal of this speech is to frame the filibuster issue in a new metaphor:  voting is standing together.

Here's the speech:
Who Should Senators Stand With?

Over and over again on the floor of the Senate -- following the lead of Majority leader Frist--Republican senator after Republican senator has stood up and told the American people that the job of a senator is to vote "up or down" on the proposals of the President.

In response to this idea, as the leader of the Majority party in the Senate, I turn to the American people and ask a very simple question:  Who should the senators in this Congress stand with? 

Do the American people truly believe that it is the job of a senator to simply give a "yes" or "no" answer to the whatever proposal the Executive branch sends to the floor of the Senate? They do not believe this.

Ladies and gentleman of the Senate, Americans know that the first responsibility of every senator is not to the President, but to the people. That's right, to the people.  Senators should stand with the people.  That is the answer to the question.

But it was not always this way.  It used to be that Senators were not responsible to the people.  When the Constitution was ratified, senators were not elected by the people at all.  They were appointed by the states and sent to Washington with rhetorical skill, but predominantly loyal to the head of their respective parties. 

Over time, however, and as a result of mounting corruption -- the will of the American people rose up and changed the system in the Senate such that it was more directly responsible to the people.

A little less than one hundred years ago -- in a time that seems like ancient history to most Americans, today -- the great citizens of the United States added an amendment to the Constitution, the Seventeenth Amendment, which required for the first time that Senators be elected directly by the people.

For less than 100 years, the people of American have cherished this system that has been first and foremost responsible to them. 

Senators should stand with the people, not with the President.

The President has ample power and ample resources to achieve his goals.  The people, by contrast, have the Senate as their resource.

By why, Americans must be asking, are the Senate Republicans so quick to cast their lot with the President?  Why are the Sentate Republicans so quick to stand with the President rather than standing with the people?

Unfortunately, the reason is political ambition.

My fellow Americans, it has become all to clear to certain Senate Republicans that they have a far better chance of achieving their political ambitions if they stand with the president rather than standing with the people. This is truly unfortunate for the Republican Party, for the Senate, and for the American people.   It is truly unfortunate when a senator feels that he has more to gain by standing with the president than by standing with the people of this great nation.  And that, my fellow Americans, is what is happening on the floor of the U.S. Senate, right now.

How can the American people remind their Senators that it is their job to stand with them first -- to do with the will of the people first -- and second to be responsive to the will of the President?

While the Republicans do indeed have a majority in the Congress and hold the Executive branch, the nominees the President has sent to the Senate have on occasion been radically out of sync with the will of the people. And when the will of the people is violated, it is the responsibility of the Senate to stand with the people in opposition to the President.

It would seem, my fellow Americans, that having been elected by the people, the Senators in majority now feel it is their right to abandon that will and side with the President. 

We in the majority will not give up our commitment to standing with the people.  Even if the majority party succeeds at changing the rules of the Senate so that they silence the voice of the people -- so that they, effectively, eradicate the Seventeenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States -- Democrats in the Senate will stand firm. 

When Senators vote, they are standing with the people of the United States.  Often, the people stand with the President, but not always.  And it is that productive opposition between the people and the executive branch that is the essence of American government. 
Well, something like that. The idea is for Reid to give a speech that reframes the very idea of voting through the metaphor of "voting is standing with the people," as opposed to this "up or down" frame being pushed by the GOP. 

No matter how angry Dems get, the GOP will continue to push forward the debate in the future so long as they are allowed to frame the very idea of what the Senate is about.
Jeffrey Feldman is an assistant professor at New York University.
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