What’s Wrong

Unless you hail from the great state of Mississippi there is a good chance you’ve never heard of Sen. Byron Patton Harrison. That’s him nearby in a 1940 photo. The current dysfunction in Washington, D.C. is cause enough to remember senators like Harrison. Unfortunately now days, like the dodo bird, senators like Pat Harrison are mostly extinct.

Harrison – everyone called him Pat – wouldn’t recognize the U.S. Senate today and I’m guessing he’d be appalled by the current leaders, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell.

In the late 1930’s, Pat Harrison, who served in the U.S. House and Senate from 1919 to 1941, was arguably the most influential member of the U.S. Senate. Harrison was both Senate President Pro Tem and Chairman of the powerful tax writing Finance Committee. As Harrison’s biographer Martha H. Swain has written, by 1939 the wily Mississippian was at the height of his powers.

“That year [1939] Washington newspapers voted him the ‘most influential’ senator,” Swain said. “Turner Catledge, the Mississippi-born managing editor of the New York Times, had described the Mississippian as the best ‘horse-trader’ for his way of cajoling colleagues to pass his Finance Committee legislation. His influence, Catledge said, stemmed from the fact that Harrison never ‘welched’ on a promise: ‘If Harrison told you something you could take it to the bank.’”

Harrison was a loyal Democrat and pushed Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security legislation through his committee and the Senate in 1935, but at the same time  refused to rubber stamp FDR’s “soak-the-rich” tax legislation. Unlike today’s Senators, Harrison believed he could be both a loyal Democrat and his own man. That view got his at cross purposes with Roosevelt who, unwisely it turned out, opposed Harrison’s effort to become Senate majority leader in 1937. Even though Harrison lost that contest by one vote, ironically, and this was a testament to his reputation for candor and independence, he became even more highly regarded in the Senate after his defeat.

Even Roosevelt eventually came to acknowledge that Harrison was the go-to guy in the Senate. Because his word was good, and without regard to their early disagreements, FDR entrusted to Harrison the delicate job of easing controversial Lend Lease legislation through the Senate in 1941.

Not quite 60 years old, Harrison died later in 1941 of colon cancer. His death brought an bipartisan outpouring of sadness and regard. Roosevelt said of the Senate power broker that he was “keen of intellect, sound in principle, shrewd in judgment [with] rare gifts of kindly wit, humor, and irony.”

A newspaper editor back in Mississippi said Harrison was “square, approachable, and intensely human.”

Over the past weekend talks to avoid the so called “fiscal cliff” broke down – again – in the Senate and Vice President Joe Biden stepped in to attempt to salvage some kind of deal with GOP leader McConnell. Biden was needed, in part its reported, because Democratic leader Reid and his Republican opposite number don’t trust each other. Put another way, Reid and McConnell are so busy jockeying to win partisan debating points that they have no time to be national lawmakers.

Lots of things are wrong with the way the D.C dysfunction has brought the country, still reeling from an economic collapse, to the edge of another disaster, but I’ll mention just two: trust and process.

No good deal – and all politics is about making a deal – ever gets done when leaks and dueling soundbites constantly trickle out from both sides. The fact that both sides in this manufactured crisis are “negotiating” on Twitter and cable news is all the evidence we need that they don’t fundamentally possess the basic ingredient needed to do a deal – trust. When is the last time you heard someone say about a current Senate leader, as they did in the 1930’s about the mostly forgotten Pat Harrison, he never “welched” on a deal?

Reid and McConnell are so focused on the tactical daily soundbite and gaining the tiniest sliver of advantage over the other that they can’t be, to borrow a phrase, “square, approachable and intensely human.”

A second issue with this “fiscal cliff” is one of process. The legislative process is supposed to involve committee work, hearings, drafting of proposals, amendments and debate. Pat Harrison did not pass Social Security in 1935 by getting together with a couple of other senators and presenting a bill on the floor as a take it, or leave it proposition. He did what legislators are supposed to do – legislate, work with his committee, try this and try that and produce a bill that is then voted upon.

If a fiscal cliff deal gets done it will end up being a cobbled together mess born in secret and presented as a done deal to the House and Senate. Most of the people in Congress who should be involved – the chairs of the Finance and House Ways and Means Committees, for example – will have been about as close to the action and you and me.

For weekend amusement I didn’t watch the endless talking heads on the fiscal cliff, but rather tuned into the NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” where a panel of smart and funny people crack wise about news and popular culture. The celebrity guest this past weekend was the current British ambassador to the United States Sir Peter Westmacott, a career foreign service officer with a wicked sense of humor.

At once point Sir Peter was asked a question about the differences in the British and American political “cultures.” It was the kind of question that most political people would have answered with a vague generality. Instead, Her Majesty’s ambassador said it seems to him that the U.S. system was designed [in colonial times] to – his word – avoid “tyranny” that might be imported from across the oceans and, as a result, the the U.S. set up a system “designed not to work.”

The quip from the witty Brit got a big laugh from the audience, a knowing laugh, the kind of laugh that says, “yup, he’s right…”

The Congress that will die along with the old year will go down in history as one of the most unproductive in recent history. First, the members of Congress and the president created the pending crisis of automatic tax increases and spending cuts because months ago they couldn’t agree on a a real legislative fix, the kind of fix that would have required the hard, bipartisan work of legislating. Then, knowing exactly what would happen if they behaved as they have, Congress diddled right up until the absolute last minute – and likely beyond – to come up with what will undoubtedly be a half-baked, non-solution.

Much kicking of cans down the road will follow.

The Senate of Pat Harrison’s day would have been embarrassed by such political amateurism, such willing abandonment of the basic responsibilities of governance. While the country shakes its collective head at its hyper-partisan, broken system and, while even the British ambassador feels compelled to joke about the yokels in the former colonies, the nation’s ruling class fiddles and fusses. They should be embarrassed, but most don’t seem to be. After all, you have to be aware that something is wrong in order to be embarrassed enough to try and fix it.

 

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