Brain-dead in D.C.

Has Congress gone around the bend?



Recent actions by the United States Congress indicate it might be time to check the Capitol water coolers—there’s apparently something in them that makes people go crazy. The evidence, especially since Republican majorities took over in the latest session, seems irrefutable. Gone are the checks and balances, gone are the House ethics rules, and now, with the bizarre congressional intrusion in the case of Terry Schiavo, gone too is the very Constitutional separation of powers upon which the nation was founded. When those who make the laws go so far astray, those who live by the laws must fear for the future of their country.

This week, for instance, the U.S. Senate is contemplating an overthrow of traditional filibuster rules—the single most powerful tool the minority (regardless of political party) has against the tyranny of the majority. A case in point is the so-called “nuclear option” to ban filibusters of President Bush’s judicial nominees. Given the power of federal judges, and the fact that they are supposed to render impartial judgment under the law, it makes perfectly good sense for the Senate to vet nominees with scrutiny and debate. Add to this the undeniable tendency of George Bush to appoint radical, right-wing ideologues to positions of immense power, and anyone can see the wisdom in our government’s system of checks and balances.

Anyone, perhaps, except the U.S. Senate majority and its current leader, Republican Bill Frist of Tennessee. According to Washington Post writer E.J. Dionne, Frist has a convoluted plan to change the long-standing Senate rules by having Vice President Dick Cheney, who also acts as president of the Senate, “uphold a point of order” to override Senate filibusters. Since the “point of order” vote can be passed on a simple majority, unlike the two-thirds vote traditionally necessary to stop a filibuster, it is well within the Republican majority’s reach. As Dionne writes: “There is genuine worry across the usual political divides that the precedent set on this one issue would be disastrous for minority rights on all others.”

But hey, why stop with overthrowing the long-standing traditions of the Senate—why not go right after the Constitutional separation of powers that has served this nation so well for centuries? In fact, that’s just what happened this week when, thanks to politically driven ineptitude, Congress waded into the complex case of Terri Schiavo.

Just in case you’ve been living in a cave and hadn’t heard, Congress has gone bonkers over the court-ordered removal of a feeding tube from a woman who has been in what medical doctors and the courts agree is a “persistent vegetative state” for the last 15 years. Following a heart attack in 1990, Ms. Schiavo was left in a brain-dead condition and her husband has been in a long-running battle with her relatives to remove the artificial life-support, which he says his wife would never have wanted, and allow her to die peacefully.

But then Congress intervened and called an abrupt Palm Sunday meeting to ram through a new law requiring another court hearing on this specific case. So crucial was this issue that President Bush decided to spend more than $34,000 an hour to fly Air Force 1 back to the White House from his Texas ranch so he could sign the bill into law. Even his own staffers have admitted he could have signed it in Texas.

In what can only be described as a fit of political contradiction by congressional conservatives, the legislative and executive branches of government have now overstepped their bounds and imposed their will on the judiciary—which under the U.S. Constitution is a wholly separate branch of government.

To his credit, the Florida judge who was forced by Congress to hold the hearing refused to order the feeding tube reinserted. Instead, U.S. District Judge James Whittemore delayed his ruling, telling attorneys for Schiavo’s parents they “would be hard-pressed to convince me that you have a substantial likelihood” of succeeding in the lawsuit.

This week’s poll by ABC News indicates that Bush and his Republican henchmen in Congress are seriously out of step with the American public on this one. “Americans broadly and strongly disapprove of federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case,” wrote ABC, “with sizable majorities saying Congress is overstepping its bounds for political gain.”

The numbers certainly back up that conclusion. Sixty-three percent of those polled support the removal of the feeding tube, and a whopping 70 percent said it was “inappropriate for Congress to get involved as it has.” Nor were Americans fooled by the conservatives’ mock concern for Schiavo, with 67 percent saying Congress’ intervention was “mainly for political reasons.” In this instance (as in many others), Americans seem to be more astute than their lawmakers. As noted by the Washington Post: “An unsigned memo circulated among GOP senators calling the Schiavo case ‘a great political issue.’”

Not a single U.S. senator had the guts to oppose what many view as a blatantly unconstitutional intrusion of the executive and legislative branch into judicial affairs. However, at least one congressman, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachussetts, hit the nail right on the head. “The American people have a distrust of excessive zeal, and some of the Republican leaders’ determination to impose their religious views borders on fanaticism,” said Frank. “They are playing God.”

Indeed, given the Republicans’ stand on government intervention and the “sanctity of marriage,” if the Repubs are “playing God,” it is a very confused and contradictory God. We don’t even count the Iraqi casualties of Bush’s war—which are estimated to top 100,000—but will convene emergency sessions of Congress to “save” one brain-dead woman whose husband simply wants to let her die in privacy, peace and dignity.

Taken together, these actions make one wonder just who is “brain-dead” these days—by a preponderance of the evidence, it would appear to be Congress.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at


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