The senate is well and truly broken. There are plenty of fingers to point at lots of folks, but the truth is, those fingers are just digit fucking us all. The US Senate is the world’s greatest deliberative body, and if that is the case, then the world don’t deliberate shit, and Gorbachev is probably right, the world appears to be preparing for war. There ain’t much deliberation happening at no senate. Thanks, Mitch!
The senate also has some of the strongest traditions of decorum and behavior of the three branches of our government. Those traditions are being flushed as we speak. It’s gonna take more than all the king’s horses and all the king’s men to put this mess back together again.
Democracy is Fragile
As it turns out, democracy is a rather fragile thing. Abuse it, and it will break. Shortly after the Constitutional Convention of 1787 someone asked Ben Franklin about the kind of government that the constitution would result in, and Franklin famously answered, A republic, if you can keep it. It has long been accepted that Franklin was referring to the ability of the voter to maintain the democracy by understanding the government, how the government works, and who was responsible for what in the government. We are fast approaching a time when the vast majority of Americans do not have a sufficient grasp of our basic civics to sustain our government, and the GOP has been ruthlessly exploiting and encouraging this trend.
We don’t just live in a democracy, we live in a republic. At a minimum, a republic elects leaders to run the government, i.e. make and enforce laws. The type of government results in a lot of push and pull around issues, policies, and laws. There are numerous opinions on how to meet the various needs that a society has, and we must agree on one of them if we are to have a functioning cohesive government. By necessity, this means compromise, especially with the minority point-of-view. It also means working in good faith towards maintaining a cohesive government. If one side reject compromise to resolve conflicts, then a crisis looms. Kinda like the one we’re watching take shape on so many fronts right across our land.
Our system, especially the US Senate, is designed to promote compromise and consensus so that all sides get something. It is fraught with difficulty and conflict, but if we all focus on producing a compromise and consensus as our goal, in theory, we will arrive at a suitable policy and way forward.
Social Norms & Rules
Social psychology tells us some of the ways that groups of people work together and the importance of written and unwritten rules to guide our interactions. For example, it is well established that when we are in an ambiguous situation or a new situation, and we don’t know what to do or what is expected of us, one strategy we employ is to observe those around us and do what they’re doing. It makes sense to some degree. But, the US Senate has not been an ambiguous or new situation until now. It has, literally, centuries of tradition to define its roles and guide the behavior of every senator. So, we have expectations of one another. Last year, the Democratic senators, quite rightly, expected the Republicans to schedule hearings for Merrick Garland. They didn’t have to vote to confirm him, but they had to have hearings.
Now, the Democrats are in an ambiguous or new situation in the US Senate. There are few role models for them to follow, except for the behavior of the Republicans when they were in the minority and, now, in the majority. But, maybe, just maybe, the Democrats are not interested in burning the house down — why after the treatment they’ve received, I don’t know, but let’s assume that they will opt for functionality rather than petulance — but in repairing the Senate.
The Ultimate Game
Social psychology and behavioral economics give some recommendations on how to proceed in these circumstances, kinda like an episode of Numb3rs. The ultimatum game has been used to explore how people view and react to fairness. The rules are that there are two players. One has some money, but in order to keep any of that money, she has to offer some of the money to the other player and the other player has to accept the offer all without any negotiation. One offer. It is either accepted or rejected. That’s it.
Researchers thought that a minimum offer would be made and accepted. The player offering money would want to maximize the amount kept, and the receiving player would think that something is better than nothing. Who thought that? Some egg-headed economist, that’s who. Luckily, they tried it with real people so they figured out what the real human beings would actually do.
First, the offer was on average between 30% and 40% of the total amount. When an offer of 20% or less of the amount was made, it was rejected. And very often, 50% of the amount was offered. When asked, the participants both cited fairness. If the offer was too low, it was seen as being unfair and rejected. This finding held across cultures and across all sizes of amounts. As we’ll see, the Republicans are being grossly unfair and should expect rejection by the Democrats.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma
The prisoner’s dilemma has long been used to illustrate the necessity of using trust and cooperation to ensure long-term gains for both sides and the bankruptcy of blindly maximizing your own profits for short-term gain. In brief, the rules of the dilemma are that two people have been arrested for committing a crime. They are interrogated separately and both are given the same offer. There are three possible outcomes:
- both prisoners defect and rat on the other, both receive a moderate sentence
- one prisoner defects and rats on the other, and the other stays loyal and says nothing, the defector goes free and the loyalist gets a harsh sentence
- both prisoners stay loyal to one another, both receive a light sentence
The temptation is to defect because it either results in a moderate sentence (both prisoners take the deal) or no sentence (the other prisoner is a sucker and remains loyal). However, if both prisoners remain loyal to each other, they both get a light sentence. The risk is that your partner in crime will defect saddling the other with the harsh sentence.
If you go through repeated rounds of making this one decision, the game nearly always starts with the players being loyal to each other and each receiving the minimal sentences. Eventually, one of them succumbs to the temptation of getting FREEDOM! and rats out the other. This is when the game begins to unravel as each then begins defecting. And, then slowly each returns to being loyal to each other ensuring minimal sentences for each.
The Legacy of Merrick Garland
You have probably heard that the Ol’ Pussy Grabber has nominated judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court. This vacancy was available because Antonin Scalia had the temerity to let Hillary Clinton murder him in his sleep in February 2015, and Mitch McConnell added up on his fingers and toes that if the sitting president, Barack Obama, appointed a justice to the supreme court, then there would be FIVE liberal justices and FOUR conservative justices and that just wouldn’t be fair, so he made up a rule that only Republican presidents can appoint justices to the Supreme Court. He refused to hold hearings on President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. In fact, he went out of his way to humiliate Garland by denying him even meetings with Republican senators, although some Republicans did deign to interview him. Meh.
When President Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court, he was signaling compromise by nominating a judge that was widely perceived to be a moderate and acceptable to both Republicans and Democrats. Senate Republicans were expected to give him a fair hearing and vote on the nomination. They did not. They ran roughshod over the attempts of the minority to compromise with them.
Now trust has been damaged. The behavior of the Republican Senate is widely perceived as not being fair. And, right now, they need to start playing fair. They need to take steps to reassure Democrats that they will be treated fairly and the rules followed. Do you think Mitch McConnell has the cojones to actually risk failure or defection? Fuck no. Their stance is no where as clearly stated as it was by Senator Ted Cruz (R-My Butt is Extremely Tight) during his campaign for senate, If you’re looking for an established moderate who will go to Washington and work across the aisle and compromise, I’m not the guy.
Changing the Rules
There are two other examples that have been extremely damaging to the functioning of the US Senate and, consequently, the government. Steven Mnuchin was nominated to be the vulture preparing to sweep in and feast on the corpse of the American middle class or as the office is better known, the Secretary of the Treasury. And Representative Tom Price was nominated to be the Secretary of Health and Human Services or keeping the American middle class alive long enough so that all of their finances can be sucked out of them before being left to die a prolonged and painful death or Republican health care plans. Both of these upstanding gentlemen were given plenty of time to complete their ethics paperwork — one assumes, but since the Ol’ Pussy Grabber cannot pass the Marshmallow Test and function at the level of the average middle school student, i.e. complete their assignments on time and in sufficient detail, maybe not.
They were also vetted as if by the average three year-old that did not wait for the kindly Walter Mitchel to return from his errand so she could get a second marshmallow, no one knew that Mnuchin’s mortgage hyena pack, OneWest, had foreclosed on a little old lady in Lakeland, Florida for $0.27! on his way to foreclosing on 36,000 homes and making $1.5 billion dollars on the pain and suffering of the average middle class American who had gotten in on the roller coaster that ended with the Great Recession in the year eight. These things alone probably should’ve disqualified him from ever being allowed to emerge from his slimy hole and into the light of day much less be nominated to be a cabinet secretary, but this is the Ol’ Pussy Grabber we’re talking about so it probably seemed like Mnuchin was just engagin’ in good business.
While Mnuchin probably knew about the little old lady, the 36,000 foreclosures, and $1.5 billion, he claims to have forgotten about $100 million — chump change, amirite? It could happen to anyone — of personal wealth that should’ve been on his financial disclosure form and the quaint practice of robo-signing foreclosure documents to foreclose on all those thousands of homeowners and bring in all that sweet sweet cash.
For all of us little people unfamiliar with the corrupt world of high finance and real estate, robo-signing is illegal because it falsifies affidavits concerning the reviewing and verifying of paperwork pertaining to those loans. But, if they didn’t do that, then the homeowners might’ve had time to work out payments to prevent the foreclosures and, then, how would Mnuchin and company make all that sweet lucre? Not fair, right? What’s a corrupt, soulless banker to do?
Representative Price (R- Grab it with Both Hands) and a medical doctor seems to have suggested to the Finance Committee that the discounted shares he bought from an Australian biotech company that just so happened to be working on legislation that would affect their stock prices were offered to all investors. But, that dishonest — the most dishonest people in the world — Wall Street Journal reported that Price was one of the few investors offered the discounted price. So, it’s not like he was trying to do any insider trading or take advantage of his position as a representative to make personal gain or anything, right?
The Democratic senators on the committee wanted to find out more about these contradictions, discrepancies, and ethical violations, but the Republican senators, we’re like, nah, we’re good, let’s vote. The Dems remembered that there was a RULE that said at least one member of each political party had to be present when a vote was taken, so the Dems decided to skip the committee meeting until the Repubes would allow further testimony and evidence regarding these two matters.
Well, let me tell you, when Sen Orrin Hatch (R-Whateville) was furious with the Dems for not letting him deliver the corrupt cabinet secretaries to the Ol’ Pussy Grabber late but at least delivered so the executive branch could get on with making a mess of the government and lighting the world on fire with a full cabinet. So, he did what only someone with a deep respect for the opposition and the traditions of the august institution of the senate could, he changed the rules and allowed the nominations to be passed out of the committee by a vote of only the Republican members! Sweet!
The great civics lesson for the American electorate continues. Compromise is necessary for a democracy to be an effective and functional government. It is as simple as that. Republicans need to start acting like patriotic Americans and begin compromising with Democrats, or the entire republic is in danger of being flushed down the shitter. Otherwise, we will remain the United Fucking States of Fucking Stupid.