WASHINGTON - The father of the Senate scolded his errant children this week. And rightly so. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the whole of the Congress has been missing in action. But the silence of the Senate has been more dramatically disturbing, as it is supposedly the deliberative body responsible for framing the political and policy debates that should frame federal policy.
U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., the president pro tempore of the Senate, has seen little deliberation in recent weeks, and the sage of the Senate finally had enough.
In an extraordinary set of remarks delivered Monday, the senior senator complained that his colleagues have "put a zipper on our lips," effectively closing off discussion on the most fundamental issues with which this Congress should be dealing. The "paucity of debate" was particularly evident, Byrd complained, in the Senate's consideration of the resolution that handed President Bush the authority to wage an ill-defined war.
"The president has declared ours to be a nation at war with global terrorism," declared Byrd, the third person in the line of succession to the presidency. "We have united behind him in this hour of crisis, but we remain mindful of the somber history of the nation, of the blood that has been shed over centuries to protect and defend the values enshrined in the Constitution. We must, therefore, be as constant in our vigilance of the Constitution as we are strong in our battle against terrorism."
Recalling that the Constitution - a copy of which the senator carries in his breast pocket - and the 1973 War Powers Act define a clear consultative role for the Senate in times of war preparation, Byrd warned that the demand for "a speedy response should not be used as an excuse to trample full and free debate."
Yet, as Byrd pointed out, the discourse has been trampled since the Sept. 11 attacks. On Sept. 14, the House and Senate passed resolutions authorizing President Bush to use force in going after the network of terrorists believed to be responsible for the September attacks. Only U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., voted no, earning herself a permanent place in the annals of congressional courage.
Apparently, most members of the Senate perceived their votes for the resolution not merely as having authorized the use of force against soon-to-be-identified enemies across the globe, but also as having authorized the Senate to cease to carry out its constitutionally mandated consultative role in the legislative process.
Senators have essentially stood mute as members of the Bush administration have carried on the only real discourse over the scope and character of the war. It is no secret that Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other "war Cabinet" members have been engaged in sometimes passionate debates over how to wage war, the nature of alliances into which the United States should enter and the place of diplomacy.
Yet those debates have not included the Congress. The elected representatives of the people have, at best, been spectators on the edges of the greatest public policy debate this nation has seen in decades.
The Senate's performance has been shameful. Key Democratic senators have rolled over in the face of administration demands for unrelated policy shifts - especially funding for the Star Wars national missile defense boondoggle. They have voted 96-1 to allocate $15 billion to war profiteering airline CEOs, while failing to provide a cent for laid off airline workers. And, in another collapse of conscience and conscientiousness, they appear to be preparing to grant Bush sweeping "fast track" authority to negotiate a Free Trade Area of the Americas.
This is the crisis about which Byrd has complained, and the old patriot is right to worry. On Sept. 14, the Senate voted unanimously for the "use of force" resolution, with little debate and despite the fact that - as Byrd noted - the president had offered "no details on the proposed scope and duration of the deployment."
Since then, senators have accepted roles as bystanders to the process of governing, strategy-shaping and war-making. As such, they have failed to abide by the Constitution they swore to uphold, and they have failed the voters who elected them. Byrd is right to recognize that there is nothing patriotic in this dereliction of duty.
The Congress is a branch of government with an equal role to that of the executive. By failing to assert itself, the Senate does not merely diminish itself. The Senate thwarts the intent of the nation's founders, who well recognized that no ruler - be he a king or a president - should have sole authority over decisions about war, peace and the affairs of state in turbulent times.
Copyright 2001 The Capital Times