Men of Dishonor 

A Congress of 21st century cynics dodges 19th century rules

People are calling the recently adjourned 112th Congress "the most dysfunctional ever" and the least productive since the infamous "do-nothing Congress" of the 1940s. But one cause for congressional gridlock has gone unnoticed and unremarked upon: We no longer have a sense of honor.

Back in the late 18th and 19th centuries, when our bicameral legislature and its rules were conceived, a gentleman's word was his most precious asset. Integrity was literally a matter of life and death (consider the matter of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr).

Though less than perfect, there was a lot to be said for a culture in which a person's word was his bond, legalistic quibbling was scorned and a legislator was expected to stake out and defend a principled position, even in the face of political and personal adversity.

It's hard to imagine the fiscal cliff showdown unfolding in the 1800s or even the first half of the 1900s for two simple reasons. The general fiscal health of the country would have come ahead of partisanship. Second, and more importantly, members of the two political parties would have stuck to the deal that they struck a decade earlier.

When George W. Bush pushed for a set of income tax cuts that primarily benefited the wealthiest Americans in 2001, he argued the standard GOP trickle-down economics. In order to get enough Democratic support, Republicans agreed to a five-year time period, after which taxes would revert.

By 2006 there was still no evidence that the tax cuts had stimulated the economy. In fact, by many measures, things were worse. If this had been the 19th century, Republican legislators would have acknowledged that their experiment had failed. A gentleman didn't run away from the facts or his mistakes.

Voters seemed to agree. Unhappy with the state of the economy, Americans returned Democrats to control of Congress in 2006. Republicans had a pretty good idea that their unpopular policies were driving them toward a decisive defeat in the midterm elections. For men and women of honor, this would have been a time to reassess and back off.

Nevertheless, the GOP jammed through an extension of the 2001 Bush tax cuts for the wealthy months before the midterm election.

Here we are nearly 12 years later, and the verdict is in: The Bush tax cuts failed miserably. It's absolutely ridiculous that President Barack Obama and the Democrats agreed to extend them for all but the richest one-half of 1 percent of Americans. But the debate should never have gotten this far. Had the Republicans who proposed it in the first place possessed an iota of good old-fashioned 19th century honor and integrity, this misbegotten legislative abortion would have died in 2006.

Robert's Rules of Order and other quaint traditions of parliamentary procedure don't translate to a quibbling little time like ours. The Senate, the only house of Congress that permits a filibuster, draws upon a tradition of principled minority protest that goes back to Cato in ancient Rome.

Until the 1970s, filibusters were a rarity, averaging one a year. Senators viewed them as a nuclear option. Now, the filibuster is not only a daily routine but gets deployed in an automated way so that the Senate has effectively become a body in which nothing gets done without a 60 percent vote in favor.

Everyone in the Senate understood what filibusters were for. No one abused them. It was a matter of honor. But honor is too much to ask when even the most basic of all political considerations--ideology and party affiliation--bend like a reed in the winds of change.

The Republican governor of New Jersey and a Republican congressman from Long Island, N.Y., were so incensed by their party's refusal to approve disaster relief funds after Hurricane Sandy that they went public with disparaging remarks about the Republican leadership in Congress. Fair enough. Standing up for your constituents against rank parochial self-interest is what integrity is all about.

On the other hand, the immediate willingness of some so-called liberal Democrats to welcome Chris Christie and Peter King indicates a willingness to overlook basic principles that would have startled most self-described gentlemen of a century or two ago, much less those who'd entered public service.

Back then, of course, the American political party system wasn't as settled as it is today, so there were mass changes of party affiliation as parties appeared, metastasized and vanished. Still, it wasn't acceptable behavior to change parties over a minor spat like the hurricane aid or for a party to accept members who didn't adhere to its principles.

It's almost enough to make you wish for a duel.

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