House and Senate seem to have vanished as checks on the president
By Steve Forrester
The U.S. Senate woke up last week. At a time when Congress has largely been mute to a would-be despot in the White House, the Senate Intelligence Committee delivered a landmark moment.
In a nutshell, the committee’s Republican majority and Democratic minority agreed that Russians had meddled in the 2016 presidential election to boost the campaign of Donald Trump.
That clear voice was in marked contrast to the circus that the House Intelligence Committee has become. House Speaker Paul Ryan has been painfully passive in the face of the malfeasance of Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes of California. Ryan effectively abdicated the House’s obligation to be a co-equal branch of American government.
Reading last week’s news, I pulled out a book titled “200 Notable Days: Senate Stories, 1787 to 2002.” The book grew out of a series of brief lectures delivered over 12 years by the Senate’s historian, Richard Baker. I had the good fortune to know Dick Baker during my 10 years as a Capitol Hill correspondent.
Baker’s talks were called “Senate minutes.” At the request of then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Baker began this exercise in 1997. The idea was to give senators a sense of their heritage. Baker did that until his retirement. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has continued the tradition.
Many of the 200 moments in Baker’s book are about the arcane curiosities of the Senate. And some are about those moments when the Senate stood up to the president, Democrat and Republican alike.
It is not partisan overstatement to say that the House and Senate seem to have vanished as checks on the president over the past 19 months. It is not unique to the Republican party — as Donald Trump has debased it — to forget the check and balance role that Congress, and especially the Senate, are designed to play.
The U.S. Constitution is a profoundly conservative document. The founding document sets up a system that purposely was to be a bulwark against mob rule or sweeping change. Thus moments of profound change are rare — such as a number of progressive laws that established the land grant colleges during the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But in all eras, each senator has the ability to embody the crisis of the moment. U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon did that recently when he went alone to a facility that housed children who were separated from their parents who had sought entry to America. When federal officials barred Sen. Merkley from entering the building, we saw a moment that was emblematic of a heartless scheme that President Trump launched with no detailed plan. Merkley’s boldness set in motion a series of other lawmakers who made similar treks to lonely places where children, including babies, were incarcerated.
Congressional oversight was what Merkley was exercising, and his expedition helped Americans awaken to a desperate moment that is a stain on our nation’s claim to higher moral purpose.
Similarly, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon has been a dogged interrogator in the Senate Intelligence Committee. Wyden’s pattern of questioning began during President Barack Obama’s administration, and it has grown more urgent with a president who has weakened the intelligence establishment on which American security and foreign policy depends.
I don’t know that last week’s Senate Intelligence Committee report would rise to the level of what’s in Dick Baker’s book. But for those of us who are waiting for the sleeping giant to awaken, this was a heartening statement.
Steve Forrester, the former editor and publisher of The Daily Astorian, is the president and CEO of EO Media Group.