Sunday, April 13, 2014

Tradition ("An Idea Whose Time Has Come" by Todd Purdum)

In its published form, the rules and procedures of Congress--rendered as the Senate Manual and the House Rules and Manual--are voluminous, each coming in at just under 1500 pages.* On its surface, this fact might be explained away by the relative size and responsibilities of the legislative branch, which, after all, must oversee the world's largest military, largest economy, and third largest population. In truth, however, these 3,000 collective pages are a labyrinthine, almost unreadable series of motions, requirements, guidelines, steps, and exceptions that reduce what is supposed to be a model of democratic governance to something akin to a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, in which the legislature's own rules prevent it from fulfilling its sole responsibility:  to do the most good for the greatest number of its people. In the right hands, these rules are a tool to accomplish just that goal; in the wrong hands, however, they become a weapon against justice, equality, and the very freedoms embodied in our Constitution. And nowhere in our nation's history is this disparity more clearly seen than the fight for civil rights, which began during the presidency of John F. Kennedy and ended--if it ever truly did end--with Lyndon Johnson.

Congress of the 1960s was an institution in turmoil, its members--almost all of them white men--embodying the complicated feelings of their constituents and, in essence, the country as a whole. There were those from the Deep South, where segregation and bigotry were fully ingrained, who defined any attempts at correcting the deep inequality between white and black as, ironically enough, government intrusion and oppression. There were those in the North who spoke of compassion and humanity, much to the chagrin of their colleagues from below the Mason-Dixon, but who often flinched when the time came to translate their attitudes into action; after all, words were cheap and forgettable, but votes were preserved in record, and anyone aspiring to higher office back then often needed the votes of the South--and the support of their representatives--to gain that office. There were those who were confused and unsure if they should err on the side of tradition or take steps towards change. The country was in the midst of social upheaval; the news was dominated by stories of peaceful protests, illegal arrests, violent counter-attacks, bombings, and riots, and it seemed as though any change, however warranted, would be little more than another fuel-soaked piece of timber on the fire.

Regardless, the forces pushing for civil rights had the majority--slight to be sure, but nonetheless mathematically sound. Unfortunately, they did not have the rules and procedures on their side. Instead, the minority pushing back against change was led by a series of men who, for better or worse, used the rules to their advantage, and a massive bill that should've taken weeks to reach a vote and achieve passage instead took more than a year, during which time one president was assassinated, another assumed office, hundreds of subversive amendments were proposed, and millions of Americans continued to live as second-class citizens, the victims of a prejudicial society that stood defiant and strong in the face of impending change. As was the case in decades past, and as it has been in the years since, Congress once again found itself two steps behind the march of progress, and had it not been for a small cadre of elected officials--a bipartisan group of politicians, many of whom put their own political careers on the line to fight for civil rights--there may never have been a bill at all, at least nothing compared to the wide-ranging act that even today is a landmark in American history.

Which is the true story behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As years passed and focus shifted to the roles played by Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., those who labored behind the scenes--sometimes to the point of illness and exhaustion--largely vanished from the textbook history of civil rights, which is a travesty. Because, in order to understand how change happens, we must understand the men and women who make those changes. While civil rights activists braved fire-hoses, dogs, and gunfire to push for equality in their own hometowns, block by dangerous city block, senators and congressmen worked through the grinding machinations of their own government...a  strange, almost  surreal  instance  of  opposites--white and black, powerful and powerless, the one and the many, the elected and the appointed, the establishment and the grassroots--battling the very same institutional roadblocks, often put in place by the very same people, albeit in widely different forms. The latter fought these roadblocks with their words and their feet and their ideas, often for no recognition and at the end of a gun, while the former fought them with motions and procedures, threatened by little more than a gavel and the op-ed pages of their hometown newspapers. And yet without one there could not have been the other, each pressing forward towards victory.

While Martin Luther King Jr. rallied his supporters and met with elected officials, Congressman Charles Halleck of Indiana worked to keep his Republican colleagues assembled behind the bill, which often threatened to shake Congress apart. Halleck did this even as the people of his district, which was almost entirely white, expressed displeasure with the entire bill, often in racist terms. Within five years of the bill becoming law, Martin Luther King would be dead, the victim of an assassination, and Halleck would retired from office after being summarily removed from his leadership position by the very same colleagues who once stood behind him. Around the same time, Halleck's counterpart in the Senate, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, died of poor health; having pushed himself to the point of exhausting trying to crate a bill that could pass the Senate without obstruction or fillibuster, he was able to garner even more support without sacrificing the bill's strength--a noble and almost impossible feat for even the most seasoned politician. (Fifty years later, the senator occupying Dirksen's seat--Barack Obama, an African-American--would be elected president,  personifying the very clear moral purpose of the Civil Rights Act.) There were others, of course--William McCulloch, the soft-spoken Ohioan whose demand for a solid, unaltered bill ensured that its most necessary parts would not be "bargained away," is perhaps the great unsung hero of civil rights--and together they stand as a choir of unassuming and forgotten voices that rose above the chaos to lead the nation, just as they were elected to do.

Most if not all of the congressional rules used in the 1960s remain to this day. And today, much like the era of Kennedy and Johnson, our country faces a growing divide between what we believe and what our laws say we believe. A clear majority of Americans believe in same-sex marriage; Congress, however, remains two steps behind. The Supreme Court gutted important sections of the Civil Rights Act in 2013, making it easier for state governments to keep segments of the population from voting, having fair representation, or living free of discrimination. Americans agree wholeheartedly in the rights protected by the 50-year-old legislation and want those protections maintained; Congress remains two steps behind. Americans believe women should be paid the same as men for the same work, but Congress remains two steps behind. Americans believe in funding early education, supporting the social safety net, providing easy and fair steps towards immigrant naturalization, guaranteeing some form of health care to the sick and poor...and in every instance, Congress remains two steps behind. The rules are the same, and the men and women who wield them speak much like their predecessors did a half-century ago, but the true heroes--those who will stand with the oppressed and fight for progress, regardless of how it will affect their careers, their reputations--are surprisingly hard to find. Perhaps they wish to fade into history like the men of 1964, unrecognized but effective. Or perhaps, unlike those long-overlooked men, they have seen the crusade marching ahead of them and decided that making up those two steps is not worth the effort.

*The Senate Manual can be downloaded here, and the manual for the House--which is officially titled Constitution, Jefferson's Manual, and Rules of the House of Representatives--can be downloaded here.