Two developments of note this morning.
First, the speaker of the British House of Commons, John Bercow, has publicly stated his opposition to Donald Trump’s impending state visit to his country. “I feel very strongly,” he said, “that our opposition to racism and to sexism, and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary, are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons.”
Second, Senator Elizabeth Warren has been reprimanded by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Her offense was to read a letter on the Senate floor sent by Coretta Scott King to the Judiciary Committee in 1986 opposing Jeff Sessions’ nomination to a federal judgeship because he’d “used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens.” McConnell apparated into the chamber, objected, and cut her off, on grounds that she’d broken the rules by impugning a fellow senator’s motives. Republicans later voted to bar her from participating in any future debates over Sessions’ confirmation.
The juxtaposition of those two stories is instructive. In the United Kingdom, forceful opinions are expressed not just by members of Parliament, who regularly bash and jeer each other during Prime Minister’s Questions, but the parliament speaker, who in theory is supposed to remain an objective arbiter of the legislative body over which he presides. This is because the British understand that it is normal for elected leaders to disagree on issues and that the best remedy for a lousy argument is a counterargument, not a gag order. This sometimes leads to gratuitous putdowns (“I know he’s minister for children but he doesn’t need to behave like one”) but it also guarantees a lively and candid debate, something rarely overheard in the musty halls of our Senate.
The natural rebuttal is that the House of Commons is Britain’s lower house, directly accountable to the rowdy masses, while the Senate is our upper house, the cooling saucer as George Washington analogized it, where passions are supposed to be doused. Fair enough. But the House of Representatives, our counterpart to the Commons, is generally prohibited from lively exchanges, too, and senators these days are directly elected, making the Senate a far less elite body than it was during Washington’s time. The people of Massachusetts, our most liberal state, sent Elizabeth Warren to D.C. precisely because she’s a left-wing stick of TNT. Shouldn’t she be able to reasonably fulfill her constituents’ expectations?
I took the time to watch Warren’s entire 50-minute tirade against Sessions—raising questions of the Eighth Amendment as well as the First—and while it was stinging and occasionally animated, it was also downright anodyne compared to what we’ve been saying about him in the media. An unconstitutionally long leash for law enforcement? A troubling prosecution of three civil rights activists for voter fraud? Yeah, I’ve wondered about Sessions’ fitness, too, and while I hate to hear my concerns verbalized by Elizabeth Warren, she mustn’t be silenced for addressing them.
The “comity of the Senate” shouldn’t mean limiting all dialogue to dreary panegyrics by crumbling centenarians who unflinchingly hail as “my dear friend the great honorable gentleman from Candy Land” their sworn legislative enemies whose Diet Cokes they would readily poison. It certainly shouldn’t mean cutting off the reading of a letter by Martin Luther King’s wife.
But the most annoying part about all this is that McConnell has now guaranteed that the senior senator from Massachusetts will be on all our television screens through the end of the week. Warren, the professor who claimed Native American heritage to get ahead at Harvard on the basis of her father’s “high cheekbones” until it emerged that one of her relatives had once tried to kill an Indian, who boasted about growing up on the “jagged edge of the middle class” by which she meant having only three cars in her parents’ driveway, is one of the most contemptible charlatans in American politics. We don’t need to turn her into a folk hero because she quoted an actual hero.